Complex Oedipus

The Chorus; Oepidus updates the Greek tragedy as a musical, but retains the round raised stage inspired by ancient Greek theatres.

Start with a bloody cocktail of violence, deceit, prophecy and tragedy, steeped in centuries of myth. Now give that a few good shakes, throw in four pianos and a heady dose of K-pop sensibility and you have The Chorus; Oedipus.

South Korean theatre company Juk-Dal's modern take on the ancient Greek tragedy will run from Thursday to Saturday at the Victoria Theatre as part of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts. The production is sold out.

Director of Juk-Dal, Seo Jae Hyung, says that he chose to stage the story of Oedipus Rex because it is one of the earliest tragic plays.

He says: "I believe there is a curiosity for the beginning and the end of something. The play Oedipus Rex, which has been staged for ages, is the origin of tragedy. It's a masterpiece which stands at the starting point."

In addition, he notes that Oedipus has become the basis for many modern adaptations, probably because it has a "solid and tight plot", which still "leaves lots of room for directorial interpretation".

The myth of Oedipus flowed from the pen of ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (497-406 BC). The tale is a savage, brutal one. Oedipus, abandoned at birth, tries to escape the fulfilment of a prophecy - that he will slay his father and have sex with his mother. But in a quest to discover his parentage, he ends up proving the bloody prophecy true.

For this modern update, Seo chose to stage it as a musical when he learnt that the original by Sophocles was written in verse form. The Korean libretto is written by Han Areum, while the music is composed by Choe Uzong, whom Seo says has "skilfully blended elements of arts songs, operas, musicals and pop songs".

While Seo has created a chorus which moves in tight synchrony, often facing the audience as a human wall of voices, he is putting music at the front and centre of the performance.

He says: "I believe music should be fully utilised like other elements of play. When sung by an actor, a piece of music becomes the agent of the character's soul and sentiment.

"Thus, music should be present when we form a world, character, conflicts and flow of emotions. In fact, the music in The Chorus; Oedipus could be the additional member of the chorus."

The melodies will flow through four pianos, played live on stage. Like the story of Oedipus, Seo says that the piano as an instrument is "very solid, and yet also very flexible".

He explains: "It can be played as the basis of other instruments' melody, but when it is played solo, it can show so many colours and very dramatic changes."

The one throwback to the 2,500-year-old original which Seo is retaining is a round, raised wooden stage, which extends towards the audience. It was inspired by the design of ancient Greek theatres.

Seo says: "I sensed that the agony and the despair of Oedipus would be too distant from the audience in the proscenium theatre, which I wasn't fond of. I wanted the audience to vividly witness the downfall of Oedipus as closely as the citizens of Thebes did and strongly felt that reducing the physical space between the spectators and the stage would help."

He hopes that a more intimate staging will allow the audience to identify more deeply with the tragic hero.

"What caused his downfall was human foolishness and hastiness, while overcoming the emotional pain also stems from a strong human will," he says.

"I believe my version of Oedipus, along with these aspects, will greatly appeal to the audience, thanks to the new expressions of the theme through a new form, music and new movements."

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This article was first published on August 18, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.