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Richard Pyros, On the Misconception of Oedipus Richard Pyros, On the Misconception of Oedipus
photo Jeff Busby

Sigmund Freud marshalled this cultural preoccupation to reveal a particular historical manifestation of the Oedipal configuration: the bourgeois family of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even those of us unacquainted with the details of Freud’s notion of the Oedipus Complex will be familiar with its various incarnations in popular culture (Star Wars, Harry Potter and Psycho to name a few).

On the Misconception of Oedipus, a co-devised work from director Matthew Lutton, writer Tom Wright and designer Zoë Atkinson, is a 21st century post-Freudian ‘prequel’ to one of the best known narratives on this pervasive myth, Sophocles’ 5th century BC play Oedipus Rex. Whilst absorbing in its depiction of familial dysfunction, this new production struggles to present a story of predestination within a contemporary secular frame of chaos and choice.

The action takes place in three acts within the confines of a stark, windowless box. A reel-to-reel recorder in the corner bears impartial witness to the revelations that unfold, signalling the myth’s endless recording and reproduction in the modern age. Zoë Atkinson’s stage design embodies entrapment while evoking places where confessions are extracted: a therapist’s room, a tribunal or even an interrogation chamber.

The play opens to a preppily dressed Oedipus delivering an account of his carefree and loving childhood. Despite his clean-cut appearance and jovial reminiscences, there is a taut, unnerving energy to Richard Pyros’ portrayal of Oedipus, which soon gives way to raging sadism. As he recounts the warning of the oracle which predicts his coveting of his mother, we see his psychological fabric rip and his darkly aggressive urges surge forth.

Natasha Herbert, Richard Pyros, On the Misconception of Oedipus Natasha Herbert, Richard Pyros, On the Misconception of Oedipus
photo Jeff Busby
The second act turns to the story of his parents, Jocasta and Laius, who deliver a series of overlapping monologues exploring their emotional vicissitudes and the eventual conception of Oedipus. Natasha Herbert as Jocasta delivers middle-class restraint in the face of having her child taken away from her. This very restraint makes it hard to connect to her grief or believe her desire for motherhood in the first instance. This lack of maternal feeling is, perhaps, a very deliberate directorial choice to highlight the propensity for ‘blame’ projected on the mother figure in any Oedipal dynamic.

Daniel Schlusser’s Laius starts out with beguiling charm—even as his wife derides his propensity for cross-dressing and penchant for masochistic role-playing—which disintegrates into a fearful, angry force that eventually derails him. Schlusser creates a perturbed, protean figure who lingers in the mind long after his character’s demise.

In Freud’s theory, Oedipus’ ‘crime’ is his incomplete separation from his mother (manifest in their unwitting sexual consummation) which leads to his subsequently impossible relationship with his father (manifest in his inadvertent murder). Fuelled by this unresolved tension, Oedipus’ murder of Laius onstage appears pre-programmed: he bursts into the room and simply beats his father to death. It is an act of deviant excess that is presented without narrative justification. This seems to suggest that if his fate is predetermined then all vagaries of plot will ultimately lead to the same outcome.

At the same time, Oedipus’ actions appear as an extreme realisation of narrative agency whereby he shatters fundamental social boundaries, which he epitomises by stripping his father of his trousers, smothering him with them and then smashing his father’s head through a wall. This scene has an arresting visceral quality of systematic violence that appears predestined yet also calculated. Perhaps this is an attempt by the co-devisors to reconcile the conflicting narratives likely in any modern retelling of the Oedipal myth, by merging fatalism with the contingency of pure choice.

Tom Wright’s stylised prose of the first two acts is elegant, absorbing and immaculate. The final third of the play moves into hyperrealism, the dialogue taking on a heightened everyday quality, which is initially amusing in its flirtatious banter, but soon feels flaccid compared to the previous acts. With some fine tuning, the flippant dialogue could be a chilling juxtaposition with the scene’s significance: the naturalism of the mother and son’s flirtatious post-coital exchange becomes an attempt to normalise a reviled situation; it acts as an agent of denial to ensure that we then normalise it too. This leads to the viewer’s potential collusion in the moral quandary, making it that much more disturbing.

On The Misconception of Oedipus is a compelling and thoughtful work only let down by the prosaic treatment of the final act, which lacks incisiveness and merely dissolves into the ordinary. This intelligent, discomforting and complex exploration of the Oedipal myth is thematically consistent with Matthew Lutton’s previous works which have often explored men struggling with their nihilistic dispositions.

Perth Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre: On The Misconception of Oedipus, devisors Zoë Atkinson, Matthew Lutton, Tom Wright, text Tom Wright, director Matthew Lutton, performers Natasha Herbert, Richard Pyros, Daniel Schlusser, design Zoë Atkinson, lighting Paul Jackson, composition, sound design Kelly Ryall; State Theatre Centre WA, Perth, Sept 5-15

This article first appeared as part of RT's online e-dition Oct 23

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 32

© Astrid Francis; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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