Surprise Conquest

Two superb productions, The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic and Oedipus at the NT, explore the ties that bind ancient and modern drama

Classics Literature Theatre

Plays, like people, should not be put into pigeonholes. For years, I have made this mistake with Alan Ayckbourn, assuming that his plays are popular farces or light middle-class comedies, and – because popular – probably not very good or even very funny. As a result, I have never seen one until now.

A new production at the Old Vic of his 1973 trilogy The Norman Conquests has proved me entirely wrong. Not only is it exceptionally funny and technically accomplished, it also – to compare small things with great – touches in its farcical way on some of the questions about the force of destiny raised so powerfully by Sophocles’ Oedipus, now in repertory at the National Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn may not quite be Sophocles, but he ought to be consoled by having one of the greatest gifts any writer can hope for – he can make people laugh. I laughed until I almost cried at Living Together, the second of the trilogy, and the other two plays are very funny as well, even in cold print. They are written both to stand independently and to work together.

All three plays concern the same three couples, who come together in the house of a malevolent old mother, bedridden upstairs and unseen. During a wearing family weekend, her son-in-law Norman (of the Conquests) tries to seduce both her daughters (his sisters-in-law), and then his own disaffected wife, with painful and hilarious consequences all round.

The woe that is marriage, the farce that is family, the petty cruelties of sibling rivalry and the helpless misery with which everyone falls into his or her unwanted but appointed role are all developed with horrible precision. It’s funny precisely because it’s so acutely recognisable: even those from the best regulated of homes must see resemblances between the cruel squabbling on stage and their own family history. Ayckbourn is well served by almost faultless actors who find every subtle nuance, and at the same time could probably make even the programme notes funny.

There are quite a few good one-liners and extended jokes, but the real comedy comes from the farceur‘s traditional play on who knows what, and who doesn’t. Most of Ayckbourn’s characters are unaware of things that are very important, and most of the time we, the audience, know most of these things. We watch the characters struggle with their varying degrees of misunderstanding and unwelcome surprise.

This, not to strain a point, is a central force of Oedipus as well. The further dimension of the entire Ayckbourn trilogy is that even the audience begins to understand, when the same events recur from different perspectives, that it doesn’t understand as much as it imagined – true, again, of the entire Oedipus trilogy.

However, the comparable playwright that most obviously comes to mind is not Sophocles but Chekhov. There are lots of similarities between The Norman Conquests and the Donmar’s recent production of Chekhov’s Ivanov; in both works, ordinary people – neither very ignorant nor very poor – find themselves somehow condemned to a life which though superficially quite pleasant, is actually almost insupportable, at least at times. Yet they seem quite unable to free themselves from their fate, even by behaving badly, in desperation – Ivanov is vile to his wife, his neighbours are nasty to each other, and Ayckbourn’s family actually insult the family lares and penates by throwing biscuits at each other in their misery and fighting over a coffee pot. In the end they seem resigned to their unnecessarily unpleasant lot. It is tragic.

Yet Chekhov insisted again and again that his plays were comedy, not tragedy (though I have never found them funny), while Ayckbourn’s plays are clearly much more than comedy, though clearly they are funny. Pigeonholes are problematic.

However, one can at least safely say that Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy is not a comedy. Jonathan Kent’s remarkable new production of the first part, Oedipus Tyrannos, in a new version simply called Oedipus by Frank McGuinness, is heart-rending. Despite a few faults, this is theatre at its best. My prejudices against subsidised theatre, and the luvvie establishment generally, are silenced by work like this. Oedipus is running at the Olivier Theatre at the National until 4 January, and although it has had some mixed reviews, I think it is one of those few productions it would be a pity to miss.

This play, first produced in 430 BC, is notoriously difficult to represent, because of the obvious differences of thought and convention between then and now. Kent’s production feels very close and contemporary, and very moving, without losing its otherness. It is remarkable.

Most theatregoers can remember Greek tragedy productions of silly tunics, clumsy language and embarrassment, with choruses bleating meaninglessly, like a herd of lost Greek goats.

In this production, the chorus is put to inspired use. Dressed in anonymous modern suits, they are deployed both as separate characters, with individual personae and comments, and also as one. The way in which they move across the stage, separately and together, and in which they chant and sing in harmony as well as speak, even dance briefly with Oedipus and respond individually to his final agony, makes the chorus a living part of the drama, rather than an awkward piece of classical business. The composer Jonathan Dove deserves much of the credit for this, as do the music director Derek Barnes and the movement director Denni Sayers.

There are some surprising flaws. Ralph Fiennes may have been born to play this vainglorious, bullying, tortured Oedipus, and gives a mesmerising performance. But he is sometimes hammy, and his voice and demeanour sometimes lapse, very oddly, into comic Leonard Rossiter mode. McGuinness’s new text has a few lapses as well. “Done and dusted” is not the way for a messenger to announce the death of one king to another, in any culture. It’s just clumsy. The centrally important line from Tiresias the prophet to Oedipus – “You are who you are seeking to find” – is also clumsy and

unrhythmical, especially for a major prophetic announcement at the centre of a mythic drama. It was also a mistake – even if it was
Sophocles’ originally – to let Oedipus’ young children in at the end, so he could cuddle his polluted little daughters, dripping his guilty blood on to their grey school uniforms. It was bathetic.

Oedipus is condemned to his terrible fate long before his conception. He was born guilty and the force of his destiny is absolute, dictated by the gods. This might seem entirely alien to the modern Western view of guilt and personal responsibility or of personal redemption and reparation.

Yet what’s true of Sophocles’ Oedipus is in some sense true of Ayckbourn’s unhappy family in The Norman Conquests, and of Chekhov’s miserable gentlefolk. They, too, are somehow condemned to their lesser fates and their stereotypical roles by forces of destiny that we now give different names. It makes very little difference how much the characters struggle against their invisible chains, and many of them come to understand and accept that fact. Either their inborn natures, or their environment, or the combination of both, mean that they seem to have almost no choices, almost no moral autonomy. The gods may indeed be absent, but whatever they once were is still tragically present. That’s what’s tragic, even when we laugh at comic stereotypes.