Ahead of the Lakeside Arts Centre’s latest production of Oedipus, Impact Arts spoke to director, Martin Berry, and assistant director, Laura Jayne Bateman. We asked them a series of questions about festivals, flashbacks and favourite scenes.
Why did you choose the Steven Berkoff version of Oedipus?
Martin Berry: I read twelve versions of the play, there are many more than that, but twelve was all I could take, and whilst reading, I knew I wanted two things. I wanted the language to be relatively contemporary, and for there to be an opportunity for ensemble playing and comedy. The short answer is that I thought Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of the play was the only version that satisfied both those criteria. There are problems with it, but it’s the best fit!
Why did you choose the festival concept as the aesthetic of the play?
MB: We worked with the designers to develop that idea. I told them I wanted a very ensemble feel, with everyone on stage at the same time, and the inclusion of live music. We went through a lot of aesthetic ideas, for example at one point it was going to be set on a river, and then a circus tent. But we ended up feeling that the festival vibe felt quite young and student-like. We also knew that increasingly at certain music festivals, theatre is becoming involved, and you have people performing theatre. So actually one of the designers thought, what about this group of people performing Oedipus in one place, and then going to pack it up, put it in the back of the van, and then perform at Latitude, and at Edinburgh. Therefore, the whole concept felt like it ticked all the right boxes.
Are you feeling any pressure in putting on such a well-known play, especially after the success of your previous Lakeside productions?
MB: No pressure, no! Theatre is the ultimate deadline job, the tickets have been sold, it’s happening. I think it’s fun! To be honest, I’m a perfectionist, so I’m always seeking to make what I’m directing now the best thing I ever have directed. Whilst I thought there were a lot of fantastic things about the previous three productions, for what it’s worth, this is the best production of the four I’ve directed here at Lakeside. I don’t feel the pressure off the basis of doing other good shows, it’s just motivating.
What is your favourite part of the play?
MB: I’m going to have to say the beginning and the end. The beginning of the play, before the play even starts, is working really well, and I think it just sets the tone of the play. It feels very natural, somehow. After spending an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with it, the final scene is rather good, if I say so myself, in terms of how it is being performed by the students, and how we’ve put it together. The scene just has integrity, and is really interesting.
Laura Jayne Bateman: I think my favourite scene is probably the flashback scene. It’s just so bizarre, as is the whole play, because Martin has done some really exciting things with it. I guess the nice thing with this version is that we have the narration, but the entire ensemble gets used. With a scene like this, it really feels like an ensemble piece, because everyone’s involved, doing physical comedy.
MB: A PhD student named Tom picked up on those flashbacks. As someone who has seen it a bazillion times, he’s only ever seen this particular scene as being talked through.
LJB: I imagine that gets really dull.
MB: I imagine it does! Also the passages are so long, the monologues are epic. With no disrespect to anybody, if you’re not Sir Ian McKellen, then it’s hard to keep an audience’s attention for three pages. It’s tough, and I’m not sure a modern audience is up for it, unless you’ve got a fantastic actor like that performing.
What have been your biggest challenges in directing Oedipus?
MB: I’ve been obsessed about the plot. I think the story is difficult to follow, and making it accessible without being too patronising has been quite a challenge. Actually taking a story that has absolutely no comedy in it whatsoever, and trying to make it have some has been a challenge. Not because it’s been hard work, but because that was important to me in this production. Those are the two that spring to mind. And working with Laura, which has been a nightmare obviously!
LJB: I guess when everyone comes to see it, they will know what the Oedipus complex is, or know that he kills his father and marries his mother. But actually how that happens is really complicated, and I think that has been the most difficult thing to get across.
We all know the original Oedipus was first performed in Ancient Greece, why do you think the play is still relevant for audiences today?
MB: At a risk of answering that question as it is always answered, because the themes at the play’s heart are about what it is to be a human being, and that’s never going to change. Some of the societal elements, such as people’s view of fate, and religion, and God, that has actually changed quite a lot. Our need to believe in something bigger than ourselves, however, I don’t think has changed at all. It’s a play about that, and a play about love, and about passion, and regret. They’re themes that will be relevant forever; Shakespeare knew that, Sophocles knew that, the best writers nowadays write about these themes too. The other thing is, there have been some brilliant adaptations and films, and theatre productions of the Greek plays. Every decade or so there will be a brilliant Oedipus or Medea at the National, so the ball kind of stays in the air, because I think directors want to take them on. It’s similar to the way every young male actor wants Hamlet on their CV, every director wants, probably Hamlet actually, and a Greek play, as a sort of hit list.
LJB: Its one of the really big plays that, as Martin says, everyone wants to do, and it really informs our understanding of the history of theatre, and the progress of theatre. It’s a really huge part of theatre’s heritage, so I think it is definitely still relevant from the perspective of looking at where theatre started, and where it is now.
MB: The other thing is we love watching the big stuff. It’s a play about a guy, who realises he has had children with his mother and kills his father. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to watch that? It’s dramatic, isn’t it? The Greeks were lucky, because they were first, so they got to write about and perform plays featuring all these really big themes. For example, Lysistrata by Aristophanes is all about sex and gender politics.
LJB: It’s just a really good, interesting dramatic story. I think that’s always going to be relevant and engaging.
MB: Look at Game of Thrones! That’s successful, because loads of people die, a lot of people have sex, themes similar to Oedipus.
Why should University of Nottingham students come and watch Oedipus?
LJB: I think UoN students should come and watch Oedipus, because you don’t generally see classical plays, certainly not Greek plays, done in regional theatres. I think, as Martin says, you do get big productions like Oedipus or Medea at the National, or some of the smaller theatres in London. However, in the regions, because the focus is on selling tickets, the theatres tend to want the big names and famous plays, such as Hamlet and Journey’s End. I think it’s great that UoN students will get the opportunity to see this fantastic play, that they’re not necessarily going to be able to see again outside of London, and that is being done in such a different way. The language and script are just so accessible and the way Martin has directed it is really funny. It’s not a stuffy adaptation of the play, so it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but then it really does pack that punch at the end. It’s a really energetic and beautiful show, and it’s only an hour and ten minutes long, so you can go out afterwards!
MB: And it’s only £5! We’ve targeted the student audience with every single element of this production, so hopefully they’ll come and see it and enjoy it.
Finally, sum up the production in three words.
LJB: Bizarre, frantic, thought-provoking!
MB: Inventive, varied, brilliant!
Jessica Millott and Amy Wilcockson
‘Oedipus’ is running at the Lakeside Arts Centre from Tuesday 19th April until Saturday 23rd April. Tickets for students are £5. For more information and to buy tickets, see here.