Classic tragedy gets thoughtful update

Nine Years Theatre's contemporary staging of Oedipus resonates with audiences

Neo Hai Bin (above left) and Hang Qian Chou (right) in Oedipus.
Neo Hai Bin (above left) and Hang Qian Chou (right) in Oedipus. PHOTO: NINE YEARS THEATRE



Nine Years Theatre

KC Arts Centre, last Saturday

This thoughtfully updated version of Sophocles' ancient tragedy is classic Nine Years Theatre fare.

The Chinese theatre company made its name with smart translations of Western classics. This new production, its first since theatres reopened, benefits from a fluid translation by Huang Suhuai and a tight ensemble of just four long-time company members.

Theatre audiences will be familiar with the story of Oedipus (Hang Qian Chou), who flees his homeland of Corinth to avoid the Delphic Oracle's prophecy that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother.

This contemporary staging by Nine Years Theatre associate director Cherilyn Woo offers some sly tweaks that will resonate with audiences.

President Oedipus is dressed all in white, holds press conferences and is triggered by an audio leak of his conversation with blind prophet Teiresias (Neo Hai Bin).

The plague raging through Thebes lends itself smoothly to a contemporary characterisation as a pandemic, with a ticking death toll figure that cranks up the pressure on Oedipus to find a solution.

These staging decisions help make an ancient Greek play tackling serious issues of choice, fate and human folly more palatable.

Members of the cast, togged out stylishly in chic coats by designer Loo An Ni, cope well with a dense, wordy script.

Mia Chee makes Jocasta's scant three scenes count, in between playing a law minister. She plays Oedipus' mother/wife as a warm, anti-Lady Macbeth who is a voice of empathy and reason to Hang's increasingly frantic Oedipus.

When Jocasta finally hangs herself, there is a pang of horror even if one knows the end is coming.

Hang, who is on stage almost for the entire show, displays substantial stamina, although he wanes in the second half.

His youthful energy is better suited to the Oedipus of the first half, a dynamic man of action who prides himself on using his wit to find solutions to knotty problems.

One of the problems of watching this play is that a modern audience is already familiar with the cunning reversals, so the focus is on the actor playing Oedipus.

Hang is valiant but unable to convey fully the depth of Oedipus' psychic collapse in the climactic sequence.

Timothy Wan gives Creon, Jocasta's brother, an intriguingly ambivalent arc as he goes from loyal brother-in-law stricken by Oedipus' belief in his betrayal to Oedipus' successor.

The hardest working cast member has to be Neo, who switches from harried press secretary to the pedantically ominous Teiresias, then to a cowering, elderly shepherd, with smooth changes of intonation and body language.

Oedipus is a worthy addition to this company's repertoire of exploring the human condition through the classical canon, and proves that the best theatre works can endure the test of time and language and speak through the centuries.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2021, with the headline Classic tragedy gets thoughtful update. Subscribe