Neil Cooper

These are interesting times for Robert Icke to be bringing his reimagining of Oedipus to the UK when it opens at Edinburgh International Festival next week. As Dutch audiences have already discovered watching Icke’s production for Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroop Amsterdam), Icke’s version of Sophocles’ story puts Oedipus in a very familiar setting as he awaits the result of an election that will put him into power. Once there, the inadvertent indiscretions and skeletons in his closet that even he isn’t aware of will bring about his downfall in the bloodiest fashion.

“I really liked the idea of all this happening in real time,” Icke says of a production in which a clock counts down the seconds throughout the play’s two-hour duration, “so you get this slow burn towards the sunset.”

Icke did something similar a few years ago when he directed Romeo and Juliet for the Headlong company when he was its associate director. Neither is it the first time Icke has ripped into the Greeks. That came in 2015 with the Stockton-On-Tees born director’s four-hour free adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia at the Almeida, where his production featured a seventy-minute self-penned prequel charting the sacrifice of Iphigenia. The production was hailed as a masterpiece, and transferred to the West End.

Then came further reinventions of the classics, including Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and a production of Mary Stuart in which Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams tossed a coin at the start of the night to decide who would play Mary and who would take on Elizabeth I. Icke went on to direct Andrew Scott as Hamlet in a Scandi-noir styled production which went on to itself be shown on TV. Like all of them, Icke dived deep into Oedipus for his Dutch language production that features film star and classical stage veteran Hans Kesting in the title role.

“I wanted to get back in touch with the original impulse of the play,” says Icke of his approach. “I slowly and laboriously waded my way through the original Athenian, and in doing that, two things stuck out. We know the play as Oedipus Rex, but in the Greek it’s Oedipus the Tyrant, which is a completely different thing. I kept with the pejorative use of that and not the more poetic idea of Oedipus as the chosen one.

“In the play, Oedipus has been chosen by the Greeks, and that released something for me. I instantly became interested in the idea of a politician who’s just come into power. At the time, Trump wasn’t long in the White House, and we talked about Macron and Clinton, and all these other figures that were forces for change of one kind or another. The title of the play has a Sophoclean irony to it, and thinking about the play in that sort of context gave the play a real jumping off point. What if Oedipus is a guy who’s not long been elected, and what if the country’s in trouble and he’s just what’s required?”

Talking just before Boris Johnson moved into Downing Street, Icke’s thesis could similarly apply here.

“In the UK at the moment there’s a complete lack of vision and a complete lack of leadership,” he says. “Oedipus is all about vision, right down to the end of the play when he blinds himself.”

As Icke discovered as well, the play is about more than just Oedipus.

“The other thing that struck me was Jocasta,” Icke says, “who in the Athenian is called Epicaste, so the audience don’t immediately go, oh, that’s his mum. The really great thing about the play is that all this stuff happens before it begins, and the revelation of what’s gone before comes later. I love that trick, so you see his wife and not his mother, and one thing I wanted to do was to find out how big a red herring can I put in to make you think it’s not his mother. We’ve also got his father on a life support machine, and it’s making you hopefully stare at these things, while all the time the real story is going on behind. The whole thing is an attempt to make it more immediate.”

Icke’s approach to Oedipus seems a perfect fit for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam. Under Van Hove’s leadership, the company has taken a provocative approach to the classics in accord with Icke’s own.

“I’d seen some of the company’s work in London and Amsterdam and loved it,” he says, “and when Ivo van Hove got in touch with an invitation to come and make work in Amsterdam, it was the perfect time for me. It allowed me to make bigger work, and after I’s done Oresteia in London, I knew I wanted to do more Greek. I also knew that if I did Oedipus in London the two would be compared, but if I did it in Amsterdam no-one would have a clue.”

The result fits in with Icke’s reputation for shaking up expectations of how classic plays should or shouldn’t be done.

“I find the Greek plays very deep and profound, and that’s really exciting,” Icke says. “Oedipus is about someone who thinks they’ve got everything sorted, only for it to all go horribly wrong in a way that’s beyond their control. That’s a very simple idea. There’s thousands of years of human culture in that, and there’s something very moving about it. If the audience isn’t being shaken up by that, I’m not sure I’m doing my job right.”

Oedipus, Edinburgh International Festival @ King’s Theatre, August 14-16, 8pm-10pm, August 17, 3pm-5pm.