Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Chorus; Oedipus, Victoria Theatre, 23 Aug 2014

In contrast to Facing Goya I'd seen the week before (yes -- a terribly delayed review), which required quite a bit of concerted attention and post-processing to properly appreciate, The Chorus; Oedipus was an immediate and effortless delight. It's directed by Jae-Hyung Seo, written by Areum Han, composed by Uzong Choe and choreographed by Eun-Jung Jang. It was first produced by the companies LG Arts Centre and Juk-Dal in 2011.

So here's how the show was mysteriously advertised: as a K-pop musical rendition of Greek tragedy. It inspired terribly little confidence, and I nearly foisted the tickets on someone else. But the rather off-the-mark marketing simply meant that the evening was able to completely blow my expectations out of the water.

The most immediately unique aspect of the show is that the whole thing is conducted on stage. The normal seats are left empty and the audience sits with the cast on the stage itself, at the centre of which is a circular 'arena' on which most of the action takes place. Four pianos nearby provide the accompaniment, and the chorus, when not acting, takes a corner of the stage. Seo's rationale is to harken the piece back to its original Greek theatre format, for the "audience to vividly witness the downfall of Oedipus as closely as the citizens of Thebes did". It is for this reason also that he has highlighted the choral element of Greek theatre, to bring it back to its roots.

The show starts with the folks of Thebes lamenting the drought, and Creon suggesting that avenging Laius' death is the answer to the nation's and Oedipus' woes. The audience is quickly enraptured from the way the citizens swivel their chairs around the circular stage, following Oedipus as he proclaims his resolve. One is viscerally swept up in everything he says as the chorus shifts around him, reflecting their engagement in his words.

Another striking scene is where Oedipus visits the oracle, who reveals the disturbing truth that he was Laius' murderer. The cast transforms into the birds whose prophecies the oracle interprets -- flapping haphazardly and ominously around her. With their hands reaching up into the sky, fingers pointed like beaks ready to strike, they caw sharply with their desperate message of doom.

Simply everything was phenomenal. The acting incomparable, the singing emotive, the choreography complete. It was by the latter that I was really most profoundly impressed -- every movement was heavily imbued with meaning. There is a quickening of the heartbeat in the frantic fights and chases, a real haunting fear as Laius stalks eyeless and desperate across the stage, and a depressing calm as the abandoned baby Oedipus lays silently quivering on the ground. Of note, both Laius and baby Oedipus were played by Sun Pyo Kim, whose expressions and vocalizations were daring and exactly on point for each character or creature he donned.

Subtleties such as these were just a sample of the attention to detail ubiquitous throughout the piece. Not a single stone was left unturned, with every second rich in meaning -- each twitch of the suspicious eye, wiggle of the judgmental finger, or angle at which they turned their bodies away from Oedipus' heinousness. One such moment that stayed with me was where two of the cast are fighting, and one is pushed into a piano. As he falls on it he plays a discordant chord, marking the moment in the score as well as in action. Also of note, even before the show started, there were various complaints about how hot the theatre was -- but ushers explained that the temperature was at the request of the director, who presumably used it as yet another means to embed the audience in Thebes.

At the final moment, the curtain of the stage is raised, and Oedipus walks away through the empty audience seats, having banished himself from Thebes. The aisles are dotted with sign posts and random seats are spotlit. The moment he leaves through the theatre entrance, thunder sounds -- rain has returned as the prophecy foretold. And the audience leapt to its feet.

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