Oedipus (Northern Broadsides, 2001)

  • Images from Northern Broadsides Web Site

    (Top down) Director Barrie Rutter,
    writer Blake Morrison and actor
    Conrad Nelson. Image: (Guardian)

    Oedipus, Blake's version of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, was first performed at the Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax, in September 2001, with Conrad Nelson as Oedipus, John Branwell as Creon, Sarah Parks as Jocasta and Barrie Rutter as Tiresias. The opening lines of the original describe a plague afflicting Thebes – in 2001 Britain was also struggling with a plague, the foot-and-mouth-epidemic, and the references to dead or dying livestock (‘cows with their ribs showing like roof-slats, vast pyres of mouldering sheep') had a special resonance. But when the play had its press night two days after 9/11, the image of a ruined city – reeking with smoke, ringing with cries, a panicked people massing in the streets – took on another meaning as well.

    Sophocles' play combines the power of primal myth with the intricacy of a detective story: how did Oedipus come to murder his father Laius? and then sleep with his mother Jocasta? In the following speech, he recounts the episode which answers the first of those questions. There's less use of dialect than in The Cracked Pot, but both the setting and the language have strong Yorkshire overtones.

    One day on my wanderings I happened on the spot
    where you say Laius met his death. A beck
    running by, a drystone wall, a hawthorn tree
    shaved slantwise by the wind: there I am,
    sun beaming down, scrats of cloud in the sky,
    minding my own, pondering which road to take,
    when along comes a coach party – a driver,
    two men on horseback, a messenger boy
    running ahead, and a man inside the carriage,
    just as you said. There's plenty room to pass,
    but the driver and the bigwig inside
    scream at me to clear out of the bloody way.
    If only they'd ask nicely I'd not mind
    but when the driver tries to force me off the road
    I see red and fetch him one full in the face,
    and then the old fellow inside the carriage
    leans out and raddles me with a spiked club
    or something, and keeps thumping me over the head
    till I lose patience and learn him a lesson.
    My blows are flisky little tigs, that's all,
    but before I know it he's reeling under ‘em,
    he's rolling through the door of the carriage,
    he's laid out on his back eyeing the heavens
    and the body I'm battering is a corpse.
    And then the others come at me, his servants
    wave on wave, every last mother's son of them
    after my blood, and I've no choice, I let fly,
    it's their lives or mine. Next thing there's only me
    left standing – the upshot is they're all dead too.
    You see what that means: if the man in the carriage
    was Laius then Tiresias is right –
    I am the source of this town's infection…

    Oedipus/Antigone is published as a single text by Northern Broadsides, at £6.99 plus £1 p&p. To order a copy go to: Northern Broadsides

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