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It’s Ruth: Ruth Cracknell, Actor (1994)

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clip King Oedipus education content clip 2, 3

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Interviewed in 1992, Ruth Cracknell reflects on her exploration of more dramatic roles and the opportunity to work with theatre director, Tyrone Guthrie. The clip intercuts historical footage of Cracknell rehearsing the part of Jocasta in the 1970 production of King Oedipus with Cracknell’s on-camera interview.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip cuts between black-and-white footage, taken in 1970, of actor Ruth Cracknell rehearsing a production of the Greek tragedy King Oedipus and a 1992 interview with Cracknell in which she talks about the play and working with acclaimed theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Cracknell comments that, by taking the role of Jocasta in the play, she made a leap from comedy to tragedy. She then describes the huge masks and costumes worn by the performers, which are also shown in the footage of the rehearsal, along with shots of Cracknell, Guthrie and Ron Haddrick (who played Oedipus) in rehearsal.

Educational value points

  • The clip features actor Ruth Cracknell OAM (1925–2002). Cracknell’s career in radio, revue, theatre, television and film spanned 56 years, but it was through the role of Maggie Beare, the senile mother in the popular sitcom Mother and Son (an Australian Broadcasting Corporation television program), that she became celebrated throughout Australia. Renowned as a comic and stage actor, Cracknell also appeared in a number of Australian films including Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Spider and Rose (1994) and Lilian’s Story (1995).
  • The 1970 production of King Oedipus, which was directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie for the Old Tote Theatre Company in Sydney, was considered a landmark for drama in Australia and toured throughout the country. The play was an adaptation by John Lewin of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and its highly stylised production was celebrated for the use of elaborate masks and costumes.
  • The Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex was written by Sophocles in about 427 BC. In the play the infant Oedipus is abandoned by his parents to avoid a prophecy that he will kill his father. However, Oedipus is rescued and as an adult returns to Thebes to unknowingly fulfil the prophecy and marry his mother, Jocasta. In doing so, he attracts the wrath of the gods. Like many Greek tragedies, the play takes up the theme of 'hubris’ (excessive pride). This hubris brings about Oedipus’s downfall.
  • Although Cracknell was well known to Australian television audiences as a comedic actor in 1970, the role of Jocasta marked her return to classical theatre and tragedy. Cracknell began her professional stage career in 1948 with the John Alden Shakespeare Company. She regarded this production of Oedipus Rex as one of the highlights of her theatrical career, largely due to the creative force of Guthrie.
  • The striking masks and costumes used in this production of King Oedipus were designed by Yoshi Tosa and were inspired by those worn by actors in ancient Greece, where they served to exaggerate movement to audiences that numbered in the tens of thousands. Cracknell wrote in Ruth Cracknell: A Biased Memoir (1997) ‘[We] would be wearing grossly built-up shoes so that with our larger-than-life-size masks, our crowns and headgear … we would represent the natural rulers in a larger-than-life-size play.’
  • The clip gives a sense of the dramatic effect of the costumes and masks. The masks and costumes gave the drama a stylised quality, but also had an alienating effect and thus served to emphasis the tragedy of the characters. Cracknell described in her memoir how ‘… the masks added another dimension and I couldn’t reach him [Ron Haddrick as Oedipus], only approach Oedipus. There was a barrier to any comfort or connection in the human sense. Oedipus and Jocasta were “other”. And yet the masks did gain expression, and some will swear they saw tears falling’.
  • Cracknell’s long involvement with Australia theatre is clearly indicated. She was acclaimed for her interpretations of both classical and contemporary drama, as well as for comedy and had a long association with the Sydney Theatre Company, touring with productions throughout Australia and overseas. Regarded as an ambassador for Australian theatre, in 2001 Cracknell received the James Cassius Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the performing arts.
  • Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900–71) was an acclaimed English stage director, playwright and writer who was noted for his innovative and energetic approach to classical theatre. After a successful career in England, he became the artistic director of the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, from 1953 to 1957. As Cracknell points out in this clip, Oedipus was regarded as Guthrie’s 'signature tune’ and in 1957 he directed a film version of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex that also used masks.

This clip starts approximately 18 minutes into the documentary.

We see old footage of rehearsal of King Oedipus in 1970.
Ruth Cracknell People and people on television had been used to me playing comedy so suddenly — here is the possibility of playing in Greek tragedy. When Sir Tyrone came out, I met him and subsequently was cast as Jocasta. I think possibly I was helped in making this big leap again back to tragedy by the fact that I wore a huge mask and built-up shoes.

Ruth is being interviewed backstage from her performance.
Interviewer Are you enjoying playing this?
Ruth Very much, even though it is physically, I suppose, the most exhausting thing one has ever done simply by virtue of a role. This, as you can see, and that is terribly heavy and it’s quite a strain on the back and neck muscles.

We see old footage of the performance of King Oedipus.
Ruth We towered and stalked about the stage on our built-ups, as the you know, the god-like creatures over and above the peasants and that was of course an enormous experience working with the great Guthrie and I became very, very fond of him and Oedipus was his kind of signature tune. To him, it was the perfect play.

We see more footage of the rehearsal.

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