Oedipus review – Robert Icke's take exerts thriller-like grip

5 / 5 stars 5 out of 5 stars.

Kings theatre, Edinburgh
An updating of Sophocles’ classic, set on election eve, has such political resonance you can imagine Boris Johnson not far away

Gaite Jansen as Antigone, Hans Kesting as Oedipus and Marieke Heebink as Jocasta, in Robert Icke’s version of Oedipus, from Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, at King’s theatre, Edinburgh 2019.
Tense countdown … Gaite Jansen as Antigone, Hans Kesting as Oedipus and Marieke Heebink as Jocasta. Photograph: Jane Hobson/Rex/Shutterstock

The play has hardly begun and already you’re making mental connections. In Robert Icke’s vivid reinterpretation of the Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus is a modern-day politician on the eve of an election victory and is making policy pledges on the hoof. Couldn’t you just imagine Boris Johnson doing the same thing any time he has the attention of the TV cameras? Here, Oedipus is promising an inquiry into the death of Laius, the former king, without having run the idea past Creon, his second-in-command. It creates a behind-the-scenes tension that recalls the love-hate rivalry between Blair and Brown or, perhaps, Johnson and Gove.

And, with this week’s news, the promise of an investigation into a suspicious death calls to mind the questions around the suicide of financier Jeffrey Epstein – a name you think of again when Jocasta reveals how young she was when Laius made her pregnant. The campaign posters and T-shirts make Oedipus look like Barack Obama.

Impressively, none of this feels forced. On Hildegard Bechtler’s arid conference-room set, all strip lights, TV monitors and functional carpet, Icke stays true to the governing forces of the Sophocles original while touching a 21st-century nerve in its discussion of honesty, truth and cover-ups in public life. The fate that threatens Hans Kesting’s superb Oedipus – playful, principled and in control – is not just a private misfortune but a public scandal in waiting.

With his family gathered round, he is like a Joe Keller or an Eddie Carbone, a much-loved Arthur Miller patriarch whose downfall will send shockwaves through a whole community. Played straight through in this Internationaal Theater Amsterdam production, the narrative exercises a thriller-like grip, the countdown clock marking time, not only until the election results, but before the secrets of the past explode into the present.

The dilemma becomes ours: this Oedipus is such a decent sort, with his faith in transparency and willingness to collaborate, that we’d rather ignore the inconvenient truth of his less-than-blameless past. As that truth hits home, and he stumbles backwards step by painful step from Marieke Heebink’s spirited Jocasta, we feel the despair of hope and ambition thwarted by unhappy circumstance.