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…