Colin Teevan returns to Soho Theatre with his new work The Kingdom, a reinvention, like many of his plays, of various tragedies and myths from ancient Greece. In this instance the source material is Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus, with additional strands from both the wider Oedipal myth cycle and stories of Irish navvies immigrating to London completing the story. This grounding of mythology in a local tale of suffering and tragedy brings it down to a personal level which works brilliantly in the intimate black box – here transformed into a rubble filled excavation site – of Soho Theatre Upstairs.
Teevan’s script is a three hander, featuring a young man (Anthony Delaney), a middle aged man (Owen O’Neill), and an elderly man (Gary Lilburn). These three actors, costumed simply and effectively by Jessica Curtis in identical heavy workman boots, dusty trousers, shirt and waistcoat, portray the Oedipal character at the respective three stages of his life and also take the place of other characters, such as the wife and the brother-in-law, as they appear in the story. The play is not a direct reworking of the Oedipal myth, but is an appropriation of the themes of a curse, patricide and incest, which have local ramifications upon a family business built up during a rags-to-riches story instead of upon the entire city of Thebes.
Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace builds upon the intimate and family nature of the script by keeping the stage space small and the script performed often in direct address to the audience in the form of storytelling. The actors inhabit the characters they talk about, but often simultaneously refer to them in the third person, interchangeably retelling and inhabiting the tale. There are often only subtle differences between the characterisation of different characters, such a changed accent or the adoption of minor physical mannerisms, but due to the performance style this is not confusing and nor is it a shortcoming.
Pitman-Wallace’s direction keeps the play tightly woven and it runs quickly for its 75-minute duration. The overlapping of the same story being told by the protagonist at different stages of his life heightens the poignancy of the tale and makes the tragic reversal of fate more acutely felt by the audience, although unfortunately the ending fails to pack the emotional punch the production aims for. The Oedipus plays were once the most popular Greek tragedies in contemporary theatre, yet productions and reinventions of them have declined in recent history, and maybe it is simply because audience familiarity with the denouement makes the peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or turning point) predictable. This may be the case in The Kingdom, however the positioning of Delaney downstage centre, continuing to move rubble and work in the background, pulls focus and additionally detracts from the enormity of the tragic revelation.
The Kingdom premières in the same month that Mike Barlett’s much-lauded Medea opens in Watford. Barlett’s script has been praised for its contemporaneity, but in many ways it is a traditional adaption preserving all of the plot points and formal devices, such as the messenger speech and violence occurring off-stage, of the original Euripidean script. Teevan’s work here is arguably far more interesting and creative, synthesizing Sophocles’ Oedipal plays and transplanting the essence of these stories to the context of early 20th Century Ireland to London immigration. The production is intelligent and multi-faceted, with the three voices recalling the three actor rule of Greek tragedy, and the particular Irishness of the voices reminiscent of Abbey Theatre’s Terminus. Delaney, O’Neill and Lilburn work well as an ensemble and infuse the dialogue with a strong sense of rhythm, which is heightened but the occasional choreographed shoveling and ploughing. The Kingdom is a great piece of writing and presented here in an intimate and powerful production. It is not to be missed.