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Oedipus Schmoedipus

Isobel Yeap gave her life to theatre.

What is this play with the silly name?

‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’ is a 70-minute long play being put on at the Belvoir Street Theatre for the Sydney Festival. Marketed as a “great big festival of shuffling-off-the-mortal-coil…dark, stupid and smart, down-home and OTT”, its aim is to make death more accessible: “Death: it belongs to everyone!” In doing so, its creators attempt to move away from the representation of death as serious or profound, a representation that, they argue, has been derived from the canon of Western literature. Each show utilises 25 different volunteers drawn from the public who rehearse for 3 hours before the show opens. During the show, they read instructions and dialogue off television screens.

Why don’t you volunteer to be in it, Isobel?

I did! I did it because I am on holidays and YOLO. In fact, I actually forgot that I’d volunteered until someone called me the day before the performance and asked if I was still coming in. “YES!” I said. She told me that I needed to come in at 1:30pm. We would rehearse until 4:30pm, then break for one hour, then go on at 6:30pm. I was then sent a confirmation email with instructions that read as follows:

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“Hey, mum!” I said, after reading this email, “Wanna come watch me perform at the Belvoir?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m volunteering to lie on the floor and dance.”

“Sorry, I have dinner plans.”

That’s cool, mum. That’s cool. I’ll do it anyway. Each volunteer gets one free ticket to give to a friend, so I just invited my friend Alex instead.

I turned up at 1:30pm not wearing silk and sat on the stairs outside the theatre under a sign that read “VOLUNTEERS”. There was already another volunteer waiting. He was an acting student, also not wearing silk or glasses.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. He was playing music on his laptop.

“Do you think I can use the bathroom?”

“Not sure. Maybe call the number?”

“Nah, I’ll wait. Thanks.” After that I decided to read my book until rehearsals started.

The volunteers were a diverse bunch; half of them in their early twenties and students in acting, the other half much older and mostly retired. We were walked through the production and given our costumes, along with individual numbers. Every time we were supposed to do or say something, our number would flash on the screen. For example, I was number 5. I would watch the screen until something like this flashed: “5: I am dead.” Then I would say, “I am dead.”

But how was I supposed to say that? Was I supposed to be happy or sad? Or was I supposed to express some other emotion that the acting students had probably mastered but I hadn’t? I forgot to ask, so I just spoke in a deadpan tone the entire performance.

Good news during my dinner break: my sister called to say she would come and watch my debut as an extra! Thanks, Claudia! You’re so supportive.

The play commenced at 6:30pm, but for the first 30 minutes the volunteers sat quietly behind the curtain, waiting to be unveiled. We were not allowed to speak so I just lay on the floor and had a power nap.

Since we had only been walked through our parts, I actually had no idea what else happened during the play. I didn’t even know what the play was about. All I knew was that Zoe and Mish (who were two actors, as well as the writers and producers of the show) would do something at the start about dying which involved a lot of fake blood. Then they would clean the blood. Then the curtain behind them would rise and my chance to shine would be nigh. As it turned out, the opening scene was a violent death sequence that involved the two of them shooting each other and hanging themselves, or something. There was no dialogue. The gunshots were quite loud and disrupted my power nap.

Then, voila! The curtain rose! I stood up and put on my neutral facial expression. (Often when I put this expression on at parties people come up to me and say, “Why do you hate me?”) I spotted my sister in the audience sitting next to my dad. “Hi, dad!” I thought, but not out loud, because I am now a professional actor. After the death scene finished, his facial expression mostly read, “What is my daughter doing with her life?”

I recited my lines, which included an exciting solo where I said, “What if death were a boat? Waiting. Watching.” Or something like that. No idea what it means. Then I said, “I am a’feared!” and this was followed by the instruction to pretend that I was really afraid and run off the stage. I was pretty excited for this part because I am an easily frightened person. (For example, I am always violently startled when people greet me, even when they are my friends and I have arranged to see them.)

After running off the stage I put on my beefeater costume. Why was I dressed in a beefeater? I have no idea! I came back on stage and we stood in the formation of an L. Why? I still have no idea! The other extras, including the men, were wearing dresses, tights and leaves. One person was dressed as a cow. We were also instructed to stick our arms out as though we were being crucified, and spasm while walking towards the audience. This was a pretty weird experience, even for me. At this point I regretted inviting Alex.

What really pushed me to the limits of my acting ability, though, was dying while exiting. Dying does not come as naturally to me as being afraid, so I wasn’t sure what to do. How was I supposed to die and exit at the same time? I mean, it’s an impossible thing to ask, like saying to someone, “Leave me alone while hugging me.” So I just collapsed in a heap and then crawled towards the exit. It was hard to crawl in a beefeater and if you’ve ever been to the Belvior you’ll know that the exits are quite narrow, so while I was dying and crawling and making weird noises another extra kicked me (by accident, I like to think).

It was so hot! The air-conditioning wasn’t working! When would this production end? I was very tired by this point, but still, the show must go on! The audience was waiting for us and we had a costume change. This time we were ghosts. Why? I have no idea! I put a sheet over my head. There were eyeholes, but still it is difficult to walk around backstage with a bunch of inexperienced actors, all of us stripped of our peripheral vision. There were lots of collisions, none of them with much force. The lady next to me was a special ghost. She was a fairy ghost. Her sheet was covered in pictures of flowers.

“Cool that you get to be a fairy ghost!” I said, barely concealing my jealousy.

“Not cool.” she replied flatly. She was a criminal barrister, and I’m still not sure why she was there or if she was enjoying herself. “I have to do a quick costume change and put on a normal sheet to become a normal ghost. It’s so stressful.”

“Ah, yes.” I empathised. #extraslyf.

As ghosts we were supposed to gather in a clump on the stage and make jellyfish arms so that our sheets quivered hauntingly. Then we were supposed to beckon to the audience. I considered beckoning to my dad and sister but then beckoned to some unknown person instead. I snuck a look at my dad and his facial expression was unchanged. My sister looked pretty tired, I think because she is doing an internship at JP Morgan and probably because she couldn’t understand why I didn’t have a real job.

After this we went off stage, took off the ghost costumes and came back in our normal attire. Now we were supposed to dance to end the show. Why? I have no idea! What was happening to me?

At this point, I had a minor existential crisis. Was this production a giant social experiment? Were they trying to see how stupid they could make me look in the name of ‘art’? But I had no time to think. The dance instructions were on the screen, and I was dancing in a way I had never danced before. One of the moves required squishing my face together. I would have never even thought to dance like this! I thought. The limits of my body have hitherto not been properly explored! Nor have the limits of my dignity!

And that was the end. What a great experience.

But do you think it is a good play?

Now, I didn’t really see the show because I was too preoccupied with being in it, but from what I understand of it, I have a few opinions.

The first is that it was definitely funny, not because it was witty but because it was ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with absurdism per se, indeed examining death in this light is hardly a novel approach. But the difference between ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’ and a much better play like, say, ‘Waiting for Godot’, is that the latter makes you question the meaning of life, while the former makes you question your life choices (“Was this really the best way to spend my Tuesday afternoon?”) Maybe that’s too harsh. At least according to my sister, it was a fun production to watch (“It was so funny how some of the extras spoke really loudly and then others really softly, and some of them walked across the stage too quickly.”)

The second reason the play falls flat is that it is not clear what it sets out to do. They want to make death belong to everyone, not just the revered White male writers who have written much of the canon of Western literature. But, death already does belong to everyone, and the canon of Western literature is not only about death. Moreover, one would be a very select (and cerebral) individual whose only understanding of death is derived from Shakespeare plays.

Finally, were they trying to show that death is not that important? How can you argue that? Death is clearly important, and having unrehearsed extras say, “I am dying” over and over again fails to show that death is trivial. Perhaps it shows that death is universal, but again, I feel this is something that most people already understand. The creators stated that in writing the script they went through a series of well-known plays and plucked out phrases about death or dying. But this is like taking the index of Keynes’s collected writings and looking up the phrase, ‘debt’, then making a list of all the times he uses it with no awareness of context or meaning. All one can gather from this sort of approach is that death is a theme which features prominently in literature, but again, such an observation is neither interesting nor novel.

Having said that, the creators really were lovely, funny people and it was a pleasure to work with them. Indeed, the show was riding more on their personal charisma than their written dialogue. Nevertheless, Oedipus Schmoedipus was a surreal experience and one that I would highly recommend getting involved in. But I would not watch it unless I personally knew one of the extras.

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