Review – Oedipus with Ralph Fiennes, National Theatre

Tuesday 14 October 2008

The Whingers love their mothers of course, just not in that way.

But how could they resist the opportunity to take in Ralph Fiennes as that titular and original mother-f**** Oedipus at the National Theatre?

Oedipal themes then; whatever made director Jonathan Kent* think of Fiennes for this? Was he having a larf? Not of course that we’re implying anything Oedipal in Fiennes relationship with Francesca Annis but they were famously coupled after starring together when she played Gertrude to Fiennes’ Hamlet.

Mind you it’s not a bad idea. Phil may also soon be squiring older women (yes, imagine how old they would have to be) round town himself having only today received notification that his application to join the charming employment agency had been successful (Phil didn’t actually apply of course, but realises this was obviously Andrew’s sick idea of a joke -which he strenuously denies).It’s all very reminiscent of Colin Farrell and Dame Eileen Atkins.

Anyway, incest aside, it felt like the old days at the National last night with a proper starry cast. On top of Fiennes (so to speak) was Clare Higgins as Jocasta (plot spoiler coming) his mother/wife, Alan Howard and Jasper Britton.

Poor old Oedipus. Before his birth it was prophesied he would kill his father and marry his mother so he didn’t stand much of a chance really. Imagine him as one of the less troubled guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

But it got worse. As an infant Oedipus has his feet tied together, pierced with a stake and taken away to be killed. (Oedipus means lame or swollen foot – now there’s something the Whingers didn’t know).

Kent has decided to stage it in modern dress, which seems incongruous at times when they start banging on about, Apollo, Zeus, the Oracle and the Sphinx. The Whingers couldn’t find any particular contemporary relevance apart from lots of talk about “saving the city” (Thebes in this case, not the London’s banking centre) so perhaps Kent (who has presumably been planning this long before financial meltdown) had been consulting an Oracle, or is a bit of one himself.

Alan Howard all but steals the show in his all-too-brief scene as Teiresias despite, like Andrew, dribbling profusely and looking like he shared the same stylist – wearing socks with sandals and a suit that looked as if it had been fashioned out of Tracey Emin‘s bedsheets.

Oedipus unfolds a bit like a detective story as he tries to unravel “whodunnit to Laius” but as the history began to unravel both Whingers were struck by the impression that Oedipus and Jocasta are just a little bit slow on the uptake. As Hercule Poirot would have said, let’s look at the evidence: Jocasta knew she had her son’s feet bound and staked, Oedipus walks with a limp (and presumably Jocasta has seen his feet in bed, possibly very close up if she’s anything like British royalty). Add to that the fact that Oedipus is constantly referring to the prophesy that he would kill his father, that Laius (his father) cast out his son after a prophesy that he would be killed by his son. And that Oedipus recalls a time when he was told that he was adopted.

Phil wasn’t completely convinced by Fiennes, even feeling there was a touch of Rigsby about him at times (there’s a Leonard Rossiter theme emerging in Fiennes’ work) and his piercing howl (when the penny finally dropped) made Phil feel he was watching someone who was trying just a little too hard.

Andrew had fewer reservations (he preferred Mr Fiennes’ Leonard Rossiter moments to his Boris Karloff moments anyway) and enjoyed it immensely although he was unable to stop thinking about his cat, Eydie (left, named after Eydie Gormé, of course). Eydie is often hilariously referred to at home as “EydiePuss”. So, any time anyone said “Oedipus” an image of his lovely cat would flash across his mind which would then naturally begin to drift.

There’s an excellent set by Paul Brown which revolves even more slowly than the one in Fram. The chorus reminded the Whingers of a Welsh male voice choir which is not normally their cup of tea but they thought the idea of “Oedipus – The Eisteddfod!” was imaginative, if nothing else.

Frank McGuinness‘ “raw” new version is spiky and dramatic and contains the odd mot juste – “nine sheets to the wind” and there is some highly agreeable gore. Only the appearance of Oedipus’s inadequately traumatised children failed to work any magic at all.

So overall the production sneaked onto the Bagnold Barometer rather than the Fram Scale meaning that it was yet another success in the Whingers’ extraordinary run of theatrical good fortune. Has the West End finally turned a corner or perhaps arrived at a place where three roads meet (Do you see what we did there? Classical reference).

Oedipus runs until Sunday January 4th. Now if the National Theatre’s programme planners had their wits about them they’d extend until Sunday March 22nd marketing it as a special Mother’s Day treat.


*Jonathan Kent also happens to be the same name as Clark (Superman) Kent’s adoptive father. Remember baby Kal-El (later Clark Kent) jettisoned to another planet by his parents to save him? Like Oedipus, a mythical character, cast out by his parents, then adopted, and an odd thing going on with his eyes? The parallels are spooky. Even better the two Jonathan Kents share a passing resemblance (right).


26 Responses to “Review – Oedipus with Ralph Fiennes, National Theatre”

  1. Fogwatt Says:

    Fiennes is just a big old ham. The ‘piercing howl’ that Phil so rightly criticises got a big laugh from a school group on the night I went. My first reaction was the curmudgeonly thought ‘how dare you – grow up and be quiet’, but then I realized – no, they’re right, what the hell is Fiennes doing? The most mannered and least convincing moment of grief I’ve ever seen. ‘Acting’ all over the place, and despite Clare Higgins’ valiant attempt to break through, no connection with anyone else. All poses and strange….beats….and oddphrasingthatsometimesspedupand s o m e t i m e s sloooooowed down. Full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing.

  2. Zsuzsanna Says:

    After this nasty critics I’m more curious to see it.

  3. Fogwatt Says:

    Hmm. Looking back at my comment it looks a bit vicious and perhaps unfair. The production was fine, but dull. His performance just got on my nerves…

  4. Zsuzsanna Says:

    Who is so nervous it’s not necessary to choose drama criticism as occupation. Even if he admits he was unfair. Fair play is a basic requirement and this ‘vicious ‘ comment lacks it.
    If you deny he’s a magnificent actor that’s your opinion and have the same right as I have to say that he is. I come from a far country to see this performance. After we can discuss it. But this style…

  5. Helen Smith Says:

    What a lovely picture of Eydie

  6. Minimus Says:

    I was there on Monday as well, and was it just me, or were there cleverly positioned “plague victims” set throughout the auditorium…?? Every time the Welsh Male Chorus began their laments, it seemed like dozens of audience members started hacking up their lungs in unison with the Chorus’ drones… audience participation perhaps? If people are so ill that they feel the need rasp and cough throughout, surely they are too ill to be sitting next to someone in the theatre!!?

  7. For a moment there, Whingers, I thought you were providing four stars.

    On another note, you’ve been tagged:

  8. @ Fogwatt. No, you are right. There was an awful lot of acting going on.

    @ Minimus: you’re absolutely right. It was like being in a TB ward. But maybe it was a theatrical immersion device referring to the pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis of the Welsh miners in their Sunday best.

    @ Steve On Broadway: Oh no!

  9. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    @ Steve, it’s just we can’t spell.

    Mother-f**** should have course been mother-f*****
    but that would have given it a five star rating. Far too generous.

    Even though Andrew was brought up in da hoods it was so long ago he struggles to remember it.

  10. Mark I Says:

    That has got to be one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen!

    More pics like this, please, whingers.


  11. I’d like to note that I spotted the socks/sandals thing independently, and filed my FT review before reading yours!

    Yes, the Wail got a few sniggers on press night too. I think on the whole he got away with it, though my companion was another person for whom Fiennes can do no right; all she can see is the Techniques he deploys from moment to moment. (I’m the same with, for instance, Toby Stephens.) But just compare Fiennes’ vocal handling of the moment of realisation with Higgins’ silent response to Jocasta’s corresponding moment a little earlier: she doesn’t do a thing to draw attention to herself, but if you happen to be watching her or know when to switch your attention, she’s phenomenal.

  12. Julia Says:

    Edyie the pusscat is gorgeous. Looking forward to seeing this production in December.

  13. Zsuzsanna Says:

    Is this file the meeting-place of Anti-Fiennes?

  14. melon Says:

    @ Zsuzsanna

    No. Nor is it his fan club. Some people like him, some don’t, get over it.

  15. Zsuzsanna Says:

    Hi, melon,
    if somebody speaks in a normal style his opinion is immediately more acceptable. I don’t like – and that’s the reason why I wrote at all – if somebody hurts an other in his ego in his talent in his work. We owe to eachother at least a few respect. It’s the problem of many factors to love an actor ( type character of both etc-.) but to call him ham …

  16. Sam Says:

    Apparently the Press Release below is a spoof…

    —————————- Original Message ———
    Subject: National Theatre Press Release: ‘Shell-sponsored Oedipus to kickstart public debate on oil industry arts funding’
    Date: Wed, October 15, 2008 12:41 pm

    National Theatre Press Release, 15th October 2008:


    The National Theatre is to break new, and possibly dangerous, ground with its new production of ‘Oedipus’: it has decided to kickstart a national debate about the potential contradictions in the relationship between sponsor and production.

    ˜For some time now we have been very grateful to receive financial support from various companies whose vision has been matched only by their resources,’ says NT Director Nicholas Hytner. ‘It has worked very well: we have been able to continue our work, despite the haemorrhaging of public funds away from the arts and other essential services and towards unnecessary wars to secure future reserves of oil. These companies have considered it prudent to ally hemselves to prestigious cultural institutions, and to allow a little kudos to rub off on them.

    ˜Our corporate supporters may have ˜reputational issues’ which cause some to question whether they belong at the National at all. But they may have sympathisers within the building who might say “This theatre cherishes an autonomy that allows it to push the creative envelope in whichever
    direction it wishes, and sometimes to pose troubling questions about life, death and everything in between in the 21st century. Is that worth sacrificing?”

    ˜However, rather than ignore these potential brickbats, and to add to our impressive existing energy-saving initiatives, we have decided to take the bull by the horns. After all, could not the desolate, blasted landscape of Oedipus’ Thebes, where ‘there is poison’ in the land, stand in for a climate change-ravaged planet earth of a few years in the future? We are extremely grateful to Shell for its support, but we would also like a planet to live, love and act on in the years to come. For that reason, we hope this production of ‘Oedipus’ – as well as stimulating, shocking and moving audiences – will help open up a space where we can talk about the role that oil, and oil companies, play in maintaining a western way of life that appears to be having toxic impacts across the board. We would like to be able to look our children in the eye, and say that we did what we could to avert catapulting the human species into an appalling cycle of wars for ever-dwindling resources.

    ˜We think we are the first major cultural institution to call for a public debate about the ethical and climatic impacts of its financial relationships, and we hope that we will soon be able to join with the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, National Gallery, Science Museum, British Museum, National Maritime Museum and Natural History Museum (all at least for the moment recipients of funding from BP, Shell or both) in launching a campaign for public funds to be diverted from the UK’s vast military budget towards the public good, allowing us to bid farewell to some of our more controversial corporate sponsors.

    ‘The NT is beginning this debate by soliciting the views of its audiences, and hopes to be able to sit down with cultural institutions in the same predicament during 2009, in the hope of developing a collective ‘climate crisis’ strategy.

    Press office: 020 7452 3030;
    ENDS; 14th October 2008


    Oedipus is the second production in The Shell Series: Classic Drama at
    the National Theatre

    Press night is Wednesday October 15th at 7pm.

    Here are details of the rest of the run. Start time is 8:00 pm, unless
    otherwise indicated:

    October: Thu 16 (3:00 pm), Thu 16, Thu 23, Fri 24, Sat 25 (3:00 pm), Sat
    25, Sun 26 (3:00 pm), Mon 27, Tue 28 (3:00 pm), Tue 28

    Nov 2008: Tue 4, Wed 5 (3:00 pm), Wed 5, Thu 6, Thu 13, Fri 14, Sat 15
    (3:00 pm), Sat 15, Sun 16 (3:00 pm), Mon 17 (Captioned), Tue 18 (3:00 pm),
    Tue 18, Tue 25, Wed 26 (3:00 pm), Wed 26, Thu 27, Fri 28 (Audio
    Described), Sat 29 (Audio Described, 3:00 pm), Sat 29, Sun 30 (3:00 pm)

    Dec 2008: Fri 5, Sat 6 (3:00 pm), Sat 6, Sun 7 (3:00 pm), Mon 8
    (Captioned), Tue 9 (3:00 pm), Tue 9, Tue 16, Wed 17 (3:00 pm), Wed 17

    Jan 2009: Fri 2, Sat 3 (3:00 pm), Sat 3, Sun 4 (Last, 3:00 pm)

    Public Information:
    Book tickets online at
    Box Office: 020 7452 3000, open 9.30am until 8pm
    Information: 020 7452 3400

  17. Eydie looks a charmer. She reminds me of our late cat Meg who was a feisty tabby who terrorised dogs several times her size.

  18. jmc Says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Fiennes has a touch of the Rigsbys on occasion. For me, the best thing about the production was the supporting cast: Clare Higgins (who I’ve loved since the very kinky Hellraiser), Alan Howard and the marvellous Malcolm Storry and Alfred Burke, certainly the best casting we’re every going to see as the messengers. Amazingly, Burke is 90 years old – what a hero.

  19. she with he of Xanadu on stage seating Says:

    On the socks/sandals debate, I saw this last night and pre-warned to look at foot-wear, was disappointed to see that Teiresias was in fact wearing black shoes with those handy velcrose straps and not a sock in sight.

    Quickly getting over my disappointment I was delighted to see Sweeny Todd AND Stan from Crossroads in the chorus, and of course Gandalf who this time seemed to be playing Peter Sellers doing his Laurence Olivier Richard lll impersonation, to my mind even more distracting than Rigsby playing Eidy Puss.

  20. Baldassaro Says:

    I very much enjoyed this production when I saw it last night , although I have to say that possibly the most emotional moment was the look of pure hatred Ralph Fiennes gave to someone in the front row whose BlackBerry went off a couple of minutes into the performance. He (the person in the audience, not Ralph) then appeared to send a reply, possibly along the lines of “guess which famous actor has just mentally reduced me to a small pile of smouldering ash”.

    The coughers were out again, possibly driven by a combination of the copious dry ice and the phalanx of rapidly-aging classics teachers who always turn out to productions like this (as a Greek tragedy maven, I know several of them by sight). And the performance was followed by some suitably epic weather on the way home.

    PS – nice pussy cat. Cats and Greek tragedy are a good combination, since I’m sure they imagine themselves as the heartless gods, and us as their potential playthings

  21. Zsuzsanna Says:

    I looked ‘Oedipus’ on two consecutive evenings (24th and 25th Oct.) and it gave me a wonderful experience. I saw the two performances and there were different central points in them . On the first evening Mr. Fiennes played a self-confident and self-possessed leader who stands beside ‘his’ people in this tragic time and wants to solve their problem. He is intelligent strong and doesn’t tolerate contradictions. He’s Oidipus Tyrannos.(in the modern sense of tyrants) And this powerful man falls in his own trap realizing that he himself is reponsible for Thebe’s drama.
    The man in a trap – that was the central point on the first evening. The ups and downs were heartbreaking. The obsessive desire to know who he is becomes his personal tragedy: perspicacity annihilates him . This terrible whimpering howl (not the augmented one!) full of pain threw him on the earth and it was poignant.
    The blind Oedipus regained a bit from his former strength and there were moments when he could fight again.
    Not so on the second evening. In the first part he wasn’t so self- possessed he was more contemplative there was fear in him, so the howl wasn’t so long and loud, he remained standing and the whole recognition was more sceptic and resignated.The central point became the broken man . He emanated indefinite pain . His self-abasement the cringing and creeping before Créon shows the total destruction of a once so mighty man . Little Antigone leads him into the eternal darkness.
    I saw a very intimate and deep performance full with emotions. When I read these …critics (Mr. Spencer Mr. Andrew Mr. Philip ) I thought we didn’t see the same production. Or, perhaps they looked it on an indisposed day. Actors can be exhausted too. Perhaps it would be worth to see it again…

  22. Rev Stan Says:

    Whenever I see Fiennes on stage I have to wrestle the urge to blurt out ‘leave Harry alone’. I can’t think of him as any other character now. I think it’s because he touches his head a lot, something he does as Voldemort (perhaps he never got over losing his hair)
    There were moments of genius but I actually found the stage very distracting and had to keep dragging my eyes and mind back from the bench and how it was staying still while the stage moved. I wasn’t the only one who had to have a closer look afterwards.

  23. Arch Proscenium Says:

    I think this place has turned into the Anti-Fiennes League.

    Where can I sign up?

    Saw this a couple of days ago and Fiennes’ performance really points up the differences between his self-indulgent, disconnected, unconvincing performance and the subtle nuances of Claire Higgins’.

    It’s a shame that what could have been a fairly decent production is so badly let down by the central performance. On the tuesday matinee I attended that wasn’t the only thing that let it down though. Also missing was the ability to hear more than 2/3rds of Fiennes’ lines. Granted we were sitting in the very back row of the auditorium but surely someone should have ensured that even those sitting in the cheap seats (well the cheap seats at the back as opposed to the cheap seats at the front) could actually hear the words being spoken on stage.

    Not everything was bad though. The chorus were fine, as was Gwilym Lee as the messenger. However, Malcolm Storry must have been taking lessons from the School of Peculiar Vocal Delivery that Fiennes’ has obviously established. I’ve never heard such an oddly mannered delivery in my life.

    I did wonder what we, as the audience, had done to deserve such a bad production as this. Other than buy a ticket that is.

  24. Sam Says:

    On Saturday January 3rd, Art Not Oil activists put on an impromptu performance in the foyer of the National Theatre prior to the matinee performance of Shell-sponsored ‘Oedipus’.

    While a singer took to the stage (where there was a conveniently placed live microphone), another activist handed out leaflets, including a glossy spoof that looked like the National Theatre was inviting an open
    discussion about the morality of accepting oil company sponsorship. A third person joined in on cornet as security guards surrounded the singer.

    After singing, playing and speaking their point for a few minutes, they ended the protest, to a gratifying round of applause from the theatregoers who had watched the performance with interest.

    After leaving the building, the three activists and a friend continued to leaflet latecomers outside the main doors. The response was generally good.

    A short film of the action is available in wmv and mp4 formats (mp4 can be read by the excellent free cross-platform player ‘vlc’ – a free download from videolan)
    Find it here:

    …where you can also find more on Art Not Oil’s ‘farewell to Shell’ on Jan 3rd and 4th, as well as how to tell the NT what you think of their corporate bedfellow(s)


    The Art Not Oilers

  25. whoever Says:

    I seem to have missed the boat. Oh well.

    I went to see this performance on the press night (which I wasn’t actually aware of.) And personally, I was very impressed.

    I seem to be the only person who saw the performance that was less than impressed with Claire Higgins’ performance. See, if I didn’t know the play beforehand I would not have got anything out of her apart from the shaky walk out of the door after the realisation – which also, did not impress me. Should I note, this is not, and never can and never will be a Naturalistic performance, hence naturalistic acting style is inappropriate and will only leave you cold.

    I agree about Fiennes’ yell – he could have toned it down a bit, but apart from that there is nothing I can complain about.

    To someone who criticised Fiennes’ vocal delivery – I have to wholeheartedly disagree with you. I thought that was one of the most fascinating aspects in the entire performance. It made me hang on his every word, and for that entire performance I was glued to my seat.

    All around, a well worthy production, that I now regret not seeing twice.

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