A pile of rugged rocks stretching up into the ceiling of the Soho Theatre Upstairs makes it look as if the roof above has fallen in. The combined weight of the rubble and the dust that still lingers in the air makes for a dense atmosphere which seems a fitting design by Jessica Curtis for Colin Teevan’s latest play The Kingdom. As heavy as those rocks might seem, the play feels heavier still, as the audience attempts to navigate the complex rendering of Greek myth overlaid with an Irish portrayal of men digging in England. Teevan’s three-hander is ambitious in concept and execution. When read, the script works well but when it is transferred to the stage in Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s direction for Three Legged Theatre Company, it becomes too complex, with a narration that spins riddles around its audience before offering any answers.
Using Sophocles’s Oedipus the King as a foundation, Teevan – Irish-born himself – transfers this Greek tragedy to three Irish men digging in the mines of England, the backbone and sweat of a labouring England seeking a new prosperity. As they dig, Young Man (played deliciously by Anthony Delaney), Man (Owen O’Neill) and the Old Man (Gary Lilburn) weave the tale of Oedipus as the prophecy is made that he will kill his father and marry his mother. It is an inventive rendering of an ancient and well-known story.
But while Teevan’s writing is clearly ambitious, it is delivered with a level of complexity that requires an audience not only to know the Oedipus story but also to keep track of it as it is spun between the three actors who share the parts and alter their voices accordingly. Whilst the cast, especially Delaney, is strong and delivers Teevan’s words with gripping conviction, Pitman-Wallace’s direction has not created enough distinction between these voices, roles and characters so that we are left to piece them and the story together. This isn’t helped by Teevan’s character names such as Elephant, Prophet and Angel which line up well with the Oedipus story itself, but in The Kingdom become far too complex to make it possible to distinguish the subtly of the characters. It is only within the last half hour of the play that The Kingdom seems to release itself from its clouded atmosphere to shine some light upon the story being woven against that of the Irish workforce. There’s a particularly strong scene where the Young Man goes to claim what he hopes to be his new fellow workers to join him against the brute that cracks the whip on a daily basis. Deciding on a flip of a coin, Delaney’s realisation and revelation is superbly delivered, and within this moment you can’t help but see the merit within Teevan’s writing.
The Kingdom feels as if two stories have been superglued together, and it is our job as the audience to attempt to separate them, which ultimately, like the laborious job of digging and removing the rubble on the stage, becomes exhausting. This, coupled with a slightly monotonous delivery, really does leave its mark upon Teevan’s writing. If there is joy to be found it can be seen within Curtis’s design, which does catch your breath as you enter the small upstairs studio at Soho Theatre and which works well with Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design and, as a whole, with Paul Dodgson’s sound design. There’s merit in Teevan’s writing, and there are some particularly enlightening moments when a divine presence seems to play against these mortal Irish men who are desperate to earn their kingdom in this land. But as the Old Man says, “A rumour left to fester becomes a plague”. The Kingdom’s plague comes in a rumour spun and woven together too complexly.