Oedipus Schmoedipus

Belvoir St Theatre, January 11

Mish Grigor and Zoe Coombs Marr with volunteers. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Mish Grigor and Zoe Coombs Marr with volunteers. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Given the advertised subject matter – famous death scenes in the theatre canon from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and beyond – it’s a fair guess that the two actors dressed all in white, standing smiling on a gleaming white stage, will soon be splattered with blood. And so it proves.

Written by the trio post (Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose), performed by the former two, and presented in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, Oedipus Schmoedipus begins with a bang, literally.  The frenzied opening sequence hurtles through a barrage of gory deaths (think Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Woyzeck etc etc), graphically enough performed that a few people left the theatre, others watched through their fingers, while some shrieked with laughter.

It’s a powerful opening that thrusts you straight into their chosen theme, and one that won’t be forgotten – though the squeamish may find it tough.

From there Oedipus Schmoedipus disintegrates. Purporting to ask the more general question “What is death?” it descends into glib observations and some inane wordplay along the lines of: great white male playwrights/ great white sharks; bitter/ bitters/Angostura Bitters/Angostura Bitters are death. They also flirt briefly with the idea of death as a dream but go nowhere insightful with it.

The show also features 25 volunteers of all ages who have had just a few hours that day to rehearse – though their lines and movements are relayed to them on screens, which the front rows of the audience are able to turn around and watch.

Acting as a chorus, much of what they do seems equally superficial and pointless but in the end it was the fascination of watching people with little or no stage experience negotiating the experience of being there in the glare of the lights that made Oedipus Schmoedipus bearable. For people without acting experience it was an act of bravery – so it was a shame that a couple of actors in the opening night audience laughed so loudly ‘at’ one of the older, less relaxed volunteers.

The play strikes a late chord with the simple statement by the volunteers that they will die, as we all will, and ends in rousing fashion with everyone dancing to Rhianna’s Love the Way You Lie (“just gonna stand there and watch me burn”) but it’s far too little, far too late.

Coombs Marr and Grigor are engaging performers but the material they have given themselves would defeat anyone. Oedipus Schmoedipus must have sounded good on paper for it to launch Belvoir’s 2014 season under the umbrella of the Sydney Festival. In practice it takes a profound subject with plenty of potential for any number of fascinating stage treatments and skates over it with a glibness that is eventually mind-numbing.

Oedipus Schmoedipus plays at Belvoir St Theatre until February 2. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444