By Patricia Tobin
(665 words, 4-minute read)
The story of Oedipus is undoubtedly known to all. From the classic Sophocles’ play to Freudian theory, this Ancient Greek myth has bled into our cultural consensus over a few millennia. Yet, Nine Years Theatre’s (NYT) take on Oedipus feels fresh and timely. Held at KC Arts Centre, NYT’s first live show since the start of the pandemic is a welcome return. Bolstered by striking creative elements, Oedipus is a bold proclamation about fate and inevitability during a time of crisis.
The play begins with Oedipus (Hang Qian Chou) introduced as the leader of Thebes. He is dressed in a gleaming white attire, reminiscent of a certain ruling party in Singapore. Similarly, Thebes has been hit by a pandemic, and has a competent ministerial task force led by Vice President Creon (Timothy Wan). Creon returns with a message from the oracle: the pandemic will end when the murderer of Laius, the previous leader of Thebes, is caught and expelled.
Oedipus, adapted by director Cherilyn Woo (and translated to Mandarin by Huang Suhuai), succeeds as a remarkable re-telling primarily because it is difficult to identify when the play takes place. The stage is flanked with Ancient Greek architecture, and yet, cloaked figures talk of cars and news bulletins. This is occasionally confusing, such as when Jocasta suddenly mentions deleting old photos of Laius. Though, under Cherilyn’s direction, Oedipus’ pacing feels modern and urgent, backed by nerve-wrecking beats from sound designer Bani Haykal. With the cast donning costume designer Loo An Ni’s crisp collars and heavy hoods, the timeframe of Oedipus is intentionally elusive, lending to a true sense of timelessness.
Qian Chou lends a charming vitality to Oedipus, and is able to express a deep range of remorse, folly and chagrin. As he is present for most of the play’s duration, he loses some steam near the end, but still retains an alluring appeal as a tragic hero. Timothy’s Creon is steadfast and assured, while Neo Hai Bin as the blind seer Teiresias is eerie and withholding. Mia Chee plays Jocasta as a sympathetic figure, captivating in her love for Oedipus and gradual descent into madness.
Despite the small cast, it feels like there is something bigger within/than Oedipus – the gods. The people of Thebes bow to many gods, but Apollo, the god of sun and light, is the one they look up to the most – both figuratively and literally, as Apollo’s bust is set storeys high on a pedestal on the left forefront of the stage. In one scene, Jocasta climbs up the backgrounded stairs and onto an ascended platform. She kneels towards the foregrounded elevated Apollo. This excellent use of stage depth from set designer Petrina Dawn Tan with help from lighting designer Adrian Tan lends a rich flourish to Oedipus. The stage is flanked by towering Greek columns and billowing curtains, and only Apollo watches above all. Similar to the high-low visual elements of NYT’s Faust/Us in 2019, Petrina’s set design shows the uneven power dynamics between gods and humans. Oedipus may have been handpicked by the gods, but his fate is also predestined by them.
For such a familiar story, we know what happens in Oedipus, so we watch uncomfortably. We chuckle at an ill-placed assurance by Jocasta that all sons long for their mothers and we grimace when the press secretary proclaims, “We don’t need gods, we have Oedipus!” Yet, despite the inevitability of it all, Oedipus still shocks us, such as when Jocasta’s lifeless body slowly descends from the stage ceiling. In a climatic finish, when Oedipus is exiled from Thebes, a double door at the back of the stage suddenly swings open to the road outside. In the matinée, the bright afternoon sun blinds us. As Oedipus sets out into the light, we are left in the darkened theatre. Alongside the remaining citizens of Thebes, we are left to grapple through a pandemic, though perhaps unlike them, our fate is not predestined but is, hopefully, ours.
Oedipus by Nine Years Theatre ran from 5-7 February 2021 at KC Arts Centre.
Patricia Tobin is a theatre reviewer from Singapore. She writes at havesomepatty.com.