Review: Oedipus Schmoedipu​s, Belvoir St Theatre as part of Sydney Festival

Oedipus Schmoedipus – a mashup of pontifications on and moments of death in the ‘great white’ canon of classical theatre – is less a meditation on death, dying, and its representation in theatre, and more of a game of morbid free association.

The opening sequence is genuinely shocking and may be too confronting or bloody for some. Set to Eminem and Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way you Lie’, of all things, post performers Zoe Coombs Marr and Mish Grigor enact a series of famous deaths from the theatrical canon. You don’t need to be familiar with the plays to follow the scene, because after the sword in the chest and the stabbing followed by drinking poison, they all start to meld into each other, an absurd showcase on ways to die. It’s almost a dance between gunshots and stabbings and opening veins, all white set and costumes slowly covered in blood. Seriously, there is blood everywhere, and please be warned: there are graphic enactments of suicide in this opening montage that could be upsetting and/or triggering.

Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo by Ellis Parrinder
Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo by Ellis Parrinder

Without context, it’s all a little hard to swallow, but post, who have devised this work, attempt to cleanse your palate immediately following. In the next scene, the stage is mopped and cleaned in silence set to music. The cleaning is given the same amount of time, roughly, as the escalating deaths, and it does a little something to soothe and settle the antagonism of the first few minutes.

Refreshed, we dive into the devised work itself. Coombs Marr and Grigor shoot the breeze while ruminating on death much as you would the weather, with a game of word association thrown in – at one point, “Peas is death,” is announced with pure syllogistic conviction.

Perhaps it’s a little too glib for so major a topic, or perhaps we all expected more, or expected differently. Billed as a creation by post after Aeschylus, Anon, Barrie, Behn, Boucicault, Büchner, Chekhov, Euripides, Gogol, Goldsmith, Gorky, Hugo, Ibsen, Jonson, Marlowe, Mayakovsky, Molière, Pirandello, Plautus, Racine, Seneca, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Strindberg, Voltaire, Wedekind, Wilde et al, a remix of death from literary history seemed on the cards. Something challenging.

Instead, it’s a recitation of quotes on death from a Greek chorus of volunteers (at the show I saw, theatre critic Elissa Blake was one of the volunteers – meta!), a game of wordplay, a diversion: a strangely ironic, detached series of observations and jokes.

The volunteers are fun, sort of, in that volunteers add an element of potentially unexpected behaviour to every show, but somehow Oedipus Schmoedipus plays even this unknown quantity safe. The volunteers read lines from screens above and behind the audience; at one point they intone, dirge-like, that they’ll die one day. It’s the only actual truth post even dare to look at, and it’s fleeting, too fleeting to really land.

It is funny. Coombs Marr and Grigor have a pleasing and informal chemistry that makes their riffing watchable and likable. They’re not a bad couple of people to spend an hour with, and if there wasn’t so much potential for something more in the show, a dark speculation on death with a couple of quotes thrown in would probably be a great way to spend an hour-plus.

Ultimately, though, that potential for something emotionally resonant is always there, and it’s easy to feel a little let down by something that refuses to engage – like dealing with that frustrating, emotionally detached loved one in your life that you just want to open up and really talk to you.

It’s this surface-skimming  approach – to present, not examine, the role of death in theatre and in life, that makes this show disappointing. For a show so covered in blood, it sure is bloodless.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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