Oedipus Read


Progress on Oedipus will be a bit jerky; periods of stasis interleaved with sudden bolts forward. Hopefully there’ll be enough of the latter to keep things interesting and on track. And there’s just been one.

Having finished the play, I got feedback from a playwright and a dramaturge who approached it respectively structurally and microscopically. But I also wanted to hear actors’ views on the practicalities of performing it.

I looked forward to it being useful and interesting, but I didn’t count on just how thrilling it would be to hear my play read by other people.

It was always important to get a ‘pure’ response to the text; one not influenced by my own view of it. Early drafts had almost no stage directions, the idea being to allow the actors and production team to develop their own responses. In the end, that seemed a bit extreme so I added a few indications of setting and costumes but I still regard them as just that: indications, and I’m open to them being changed up to a point (though I’m still not sure where that point is). Similarly there were no instructions on how lines should be given. Some words (‘City’, ‘Plague’, ‘King’, ‘Queen’) are capitalised but to indicate their conceptual importance rather than as reading notes.

So, there wasn’t much preamble and I didn’t give any ‘direction’ before they launched into it.

And it was just as surprising and illuminating as I’d hoped. Remember: up to this point I had only heard myself read it, and after countless renditions it had become fixed – every time I gave a line, it was the same as last time. I knew the actors would not only come to it fresh first time but, when we get into rehearsal, they’ll keep coming up with new readings – something that’s beyond me.

So, they allowed me to see the characters anew. Oedipus was less one-dimensionally angry – Ben bought out tones of puzzlement, petulance and dismay at the unfairness of things. Meanwhile, Anneli managed to strongly differentiate all the other roles: Tiresias became more teasing and playful; mocking and cruel in a different way to how I’d envisaged. Jocasta was transformed into a far more sexual character.

The verse was still there (the rhythmic ping-pong between phrases and lines) though without it being so prominent. The poeticism and occasional tongue-twisterishness (which had worried me) presented no problems. I’d imagined having to recast a few lines to make them pronounceable but apparently not. The language is one of the things that people have been most positive about and which I was most nervous about touching.

Hearing the text was one thing but the chat we had afterwards was equally useful. Talking about how the actors saw the characters (against how I’d intended them) threw open some new doors – sometimes a third that was neither my original nor the actors’.

Of course there are things to change, mainly introducing some more dialogues. The book-end scenes (a monologue and a near-monologue) need the most work. The latter mainly needs a severe trim (the audience would be way ahead of the character, introducing the wrong sort of impatience). The first scene is currently a long, bleak monologue, but I need to take Dr Johnson’s advice: “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Having edited it extensively, including slashing it back by about two-thirds, I’d become attached to that process as much as the text itself (“I’ve worked hard on this: it must be good!”) So, I’m experimenting with a few new openings, first up a comedy dialogue.

One other thing: it seems like Oedipus is a bit shorter than I’d envisaged. My readings came in at around 70 minutes but the reading (allowing for business) came in at around an hour. I assume that, in reading it myself, I’ve been giving in to my inner Wolfit and slowing things down oratorically. But the urgency of this reading was a real thrill. Apart from being a little surprise, it does open up some interesting possibilities: 60 minutes is a common limit for submissions to competitions etc., and I’d resigned myself to seeing those doors closed to me: perhaps there’s a chink of light there…

That Fun Thing: Funding

Having found myself with a full-length play on my hands, the question arose of what to do with it. A production seemed logical, which then raised the issue of funding. Hence, the following announcement.

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded the EdmissionUK 2017 Bursary in the Performing Arts. This annual award of £1,000 is generously donated by an anonymous sponsor and administered by the educational and cultural consultancy EdmissionUK (www.edmissionuk.co.uk).

I will be using the award to develop performances of my first play Oedipus, for two actors. Oedipus sets out to discover the source of the Plague that afflicts Thebes. Opposite him, the other characters – Jocasta, the Shepherd, Tiresias, the Citizen and the Judge – are all played by one actor.

The Bursary will be invaluable in developing the play and presenting it to the public. At the same time, I am actively looking for additional funding and support-in-kind to enhance the production and to facilitate further performances. Please do get in touch with any suggestions. I’ll also be setting up various ways to publicise the play and to keep people abreast of developments, so please look out for news

Oedipus – the beginning(s)

Quite why I started it, I’m not sure.

Even before Freud had got hold of it, Oedipus was a mythic story variously told, though Sophocles’ version is the best-known. I have a memory of Philip Saville’s film, which stars Christopher Plummer, on TV. I thought it must have been in my teens, but Sheldon Hall – tireless investigator into films on TV (amongst other things) – informs me it was on BBC2 on 23 October 1983.

I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio, which I’ve seen various times including a horrendous production at ENO, infuriatingly coupled to a brilliant Bluebeard’s Castle.

Then, a while back, Eureka released Pasolini’s 1967 film on DVD, so I saw that again for the first time for ages (I think I missed that broadcast – 12 February 1977 – thanks Sheldon!) Maybe it was around the same time that I saw Julian Anderson’s opera Thebans at ENO, over-optimistically crushing the entire trilogy into a single evening and, though filled with lovely orchestral colour, a bit dull vocally.

For some reason, the character of the Shepherd began to interest me. He knew more than anyone and, though carrying out instructions, might have reason to struggle with his actions and their repercussions.

So, with no particular idea of where it was going, I started sketching a dialogue between him and Oedipus. I’m not sure what came next, but since the King was interrogating one witness (in a sense, the only one), it seemed logical that he would go on to see Tiresias to gather more information. And so the format of Oedipus’ investigation developed.

Deliberately, I didn’t go back to any of those earlier versions. The details of the plot were less interesting than the basic premise, so I started there to see where the story would go of its own accord. In the event, one very major plot change came up; something that I would probably never have thought of had I had any previous version in front of me.

That was probably the moment when I thought I had something. Though I was grabbing time as and when I could, writing on buses, the tube or when had a few minutes spare, the writing sometimes went so well that it was more like taking dictation: I was simply listening to two people talking. So when Oedipus and Jocasta made that decision, it was as much as shock to me as (hopefully) it will be to the audience. But it had developed organically out of their conversation, so will be a shock, but a credible one.

I also ditched Jocasta’s brother Creon and Oedipus’children. I could have used the former and the struggle over the throne to intensify Oedipus’paranoia, but it seemed to give the story too much narrow politics, while the children seemed like a distraction from the single line I wanted to explore.

Along with Oedipus’ encounters with the Shepherd and Tiresias, there would be intense discussions between the King and Queen, making more dialogues.

At that point, the idea developed to make the play just that: a series of dialogues, though the opening Prelude is a monologue by a shabby citizen. That meant Oedipus could be mounted with just two actors: one playing Oedipus and one the other five roles (the Citizen, Jocasta, the Shepherd, Tiresias and Judge). The opportunity to play male, female and hermaphrodite characters might appeal to some actors. But what began as an option is now my preferred idea for presentation.

It went through various formats: at one point I struggled to create a pyramidal form of three acts each of three scenes, but that brought lots of trouble and barely any benefit. The five-act version (loosely based on Freytag’s exposition; rising action; climax; falling action, and dénouement) helped formulate the narrative better but eventually it too was cast aside as it encouraged me to fill the structure with superfluous scenes. Having said which it’s still detectable in the final version. Getting rid of those wasted scenes helped bring the running time down from 100+ minutes to something like 75. I finally settled on seven scenes, played straight-through though there’s a small break (not an interval) during which a critical event takes place off-stage.

It was around this point that it began to dawn on me that I’d finally completed a play (after a couple of abandoned attempts) and that that sort of implied trying to get it produced…