Some say there has only ever been seven tales to be told. And that, should you plot their narratives upstream, they begin – as most things do – in ancient Greece.

For two and a half thousand millennia, the narratives have been handed down, retold, encoded into our DNA. The ultimate tragedy, of course, is that, despite the endless retelling, we’re destined never to learn from them.

As the Playhouse’s 2011 season opens, the world watches a Mediterranean nation torn apart by bloodshed, betrayal and avarice. A ruling family in its death throes.

Prophesy? Destiny? Or just blind luck? Choose wisely. You know what they say about those who chose not to remember the past…

A production ten years in the making, the debut of Stephen Berkoff’s Oedipus is certainly timely.

Oedopus, as any Greek studies student knows (and there were plenty of them in the Playhouse last night) is a tale as much about identity as bloody destiny – the immutable nature of things, and the inexorable tug of one’s own particular narrative arc.

Sophocles’ tragic figure can run from his fate but he can’t hide – his epic drama’s fatal forward propulsion is as gruesome and compelling as a slo-mo, hi-def car crash. And while journey’s end may be mapped out clearer than a tom-tom, as passengers, we’re still gripped by the terror and thrill of it all.

Do we need to tell you the tale? Probably not – there may be a Greek chorus, rhythmic lyricism and a musical score to Berkoff’s charged adaptation, but rest assured – this is no Mamma Mia.

Berkoff’s spare and elegant direction (at times more choreography), revels in the sly and steady downfall of the saviour of Thebes, newly crowned King, and husband to Jocasta. But there is a plague on the city, and the pathway to salvation lies in avenging the previous king’s death.

The game is on. And we don’t even have to rubber-neck – the stage is tilted up towards us, throwing us into the cauldron of events, leering down on the proceedings like avenging Gods.

As the story unfolds, a modern audience may find Oedipus’s unwillingness, or inability, to fit the pieces of his own destiny together something of a trial. He prowls the stage (set against a backdrop of a torpid landscape reminiscent of Dali’s ‘Persistence of Memory’), he seeks advice from ancient seers, the balletic and thrilling Greek Chorus all but spell it out for him in a series of striking set pieces and tableaux. An off stage Greek one-man-band cranks up the tension with frantic bouzouki and pounding percussion.

You get the feeling that even if a heavenly hand descended from the heavens, and a voice bellowed out ‘It could be you!’, Oedipus would still be scratching his head.

Wonderfully realised by Simon Merrells, Oedipus is a vainglorious, tragic figure. All bravado and bluster, he fronts his fate like a rabbit in the headlights, his Queen (Louise Jameson) equal parts scheming Lady Macbeth and hapless Ophelia: both powerless pawns in some heavenly grand master tournament.

This co-production with Nottingham Playhouse is a brave opener to the new season – and, while it’s (by some margin) the season’s oldest drama, it has more to tell us about the way we live today than ever before.

Oedipus, to 12 March
Liverpool Playhouse

Pics: Helen Warner

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