Skip to content


Home arrow Archive: Earlier Fringes arrow Archive: Edinburgh 2011 arrow Oedipus by Steven Berkoff (After Sophocles)
Oedipus by Steven Berkoff (After Sophocles)
Published on Sunday, 21 August 2011

5 stars

Pleasance Courtyard (venue website)
3-8, 11-16, 18-23, 25-29 Aug, 1:20pm-3:00pm
Reviewed by Liv Watson

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

The moment when Oedipus blinds himself upon the discovery of his mother and sister, Jocasta, hanging from a rope, is perhaps one of the more horrific scenes that Greek tragedy has to offer. For a 21st century production, this level of tragedy is occasionally problematic: if it is not done cleverly, it can look tacky, overblown, and needlessly gory.

Steven Berkoff’s production of Oedipus suffers from none of these problems - and the climax of the performance, neither gratuitous nor obviously fake, cannot be faulted. This is in part owing to the simplicity of the entire play, which takes place on a stage decorated only by a long trestle table that serves as both a platform for soliloquies and a council table for Oedipus and his advisors. The latter make up the main body of the cast, combining superb physical theatre with flawless timing to become a single entity, both ominous and captivating as it moves between the role of the plague-stricken masses of Thebes and advisors to the King himself.

Above this ensemble rises Simon Merrells as a truly magnificent Oedipus: though he plays the man cursed and ultimately destroyed by fate, his Oedipus is neither ignorant nor downtrodden, oscillating between an imperious nobility and an infuriating refusal to understand the truth before it is finally made clear to him. He is constantly in motion, and Anita Dobson as Jocasta plays his counterpart superbly, floating across scenes with ghost-like elegance.

This elegance is characteristic of the entire performance, which has numerous subtle additions, adding extra layers that appear at times to seek to mask the unbearable fall of Oedipus. The backdrop, a hallucinatory desert scene, hints at a world that is both recognisable and alien: Merrells’ Cockney accent creates an uncanny effect that seems to render the action of the play simultaneously possible and impossible.

Berkoff has produced a pulsating, terrifying rendition of Oedipus, all the more gruesome for its simplicity, a masterpiece of physical theatre, and proof that the themes that pervade Greek tragedy can move seamlessly into the current century.  

<< On the Bench   7 Day Drunk >>