Judging from Writer and Director Ben Speth’s press release, which proudly displays a very long list of influences for his latest work Oedipus Doomstruck, one gets the idea that here is an artist whose mind catapults from one corner of the cultural canon to the other, very freely.
And here they all are: Francis Bacon, Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, Bob Dylan, Terry Eagleton, Clifford Geertz, Ross Gibson, Dan Graham, G.W.F. Hegel, Donald Judd, Karl Marx, The Marx Brothers, Mark Minchinton, Robert Morris, Heiner Muller, Yvonne Rainer, Jacques Ranciere, Deborah Bird Rose, Jean Rouch, Jack Smith, Susan Sontag, Sophocles, George Steiner, Hito Steyerl, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Andy Warhol and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Imagine throwing a dinner party for this lot: no one would get a word in edge-wise.
This is by no means Speth’s first artistic work. Speth has written and directed several feature films (Dresden – Sundance, Showtime Network; Forever – ACMI/NGV 2004: A Survey of Recent Australian Visual Culture; MIFF) before turning to live performance. In 2007 Speth made Make Me Cry based on the murder of Maria Korp and in 2010 he made WeTubeLIVE for Stompin’ which premiered at Regional Arts Australia Festival.
When Neos Kosmos spoke to Speth, he wasn’t expecting such a phone call first thing in the morning either, “I have a shopping list of things to do today, and being interviewed wasn’t one of them,” said Speth generously. Although Speth is a lover of lists, he doesn’t like to reduce anything down to series of basic and accessible platitudes. Ok, so we’ll go slowly and surely.
As Speth inferred, he knows all too well that the universe is chockablock with a multitude of tantalising contradictions.
And this is probably why he has chosen such a familiar classic as Oedipus as a platform for this piece of meta-theatre.
I’ve borrowed text from the Theban cycle, as well its themes,” said Speth. The general idea is that original writing has been created around this ancient story.
The show is made up three monologues, entitled Part 1, 2 and 3 to be peformed by three seperate actresses, HaiHa Le, Sarah Mainwaring, and Mariaa Randall. Part 1, as Speth explained: “If one understands the basic themes of Oedipus, this is about knowledge and identity.
What makes up a person from a certain place. The importance of self-knowledge and what does it mean to say, for example, ‘I’.”
Part 2: “Oedipus Colonus, if you wish to distil, it, is about the value of compassion,” and here Speth paused for quite some time, the notion of distillation perhaps being a difficult one, but then went onto say, “Well I value ‘compassion’,” with then another long pause. For what? How it keeps society together? “Well yes, the notion of a society, a community and the ‘we’ is always a dynamic.”
Speth then went on to say that it’s based on the root of the story when Oedipus finally returns to Athens after wandering for many years and the King of Athens greets him with, ‘I recognise who you are by your weathered face and rags and know what you have gone through,” said Speth loosely quoting from the original work.
“There is not much drama in this work, as it’s mainly philosophising,” but Speth expanded on this by saying, “It’s being able to acknowledge what another human being’s experiences and to acknowledge that some people are beaten by the world and that we should be looked after.”
And Part 3? “That works off Antigone and the debate that she and Crion have.
Her brothers have killed each other, one having laid siege to the city and the other having protected the city. Crion her uncle has assumed the throne and decreed it a capital offence for her to bury one of her brothers.
One gets a state funeral for protecting the city while the other brother does not, ‘so it is my right to give him honours. to bury him'( the one who laid siege) claims Antigone,” said Speth, “and Crion says no. So it’s a great debate about the value of dissent, about the rights and responsibilities within the state. In the end neither Crion or Antiogne come out smelling so good, because they’re both crazy.”
Although the Oedipus story is a familiar one, particularly through the legacy of Freud, and there’s the fact that Speth’s intention is using this iconic work only as a framework to present some original writing.
The remaining question is whether the average audience member may need to read up before even setting foot in the theatre.
Venue: Grant St Theatre (between St Kilda Rd and Dodd St) Feb 17-18, 8pm; Feb 19-20 2pm FREE ADMISSION – no bookings necessary.