The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
★★★★ “A memorable spectacle”
Review by Sarah Tinsley
We’re cramped among smoky ruins, daubed in ancient Greek. Sprawled on the floor are monochrome-dressed figures, fumbling through discarded pages of text. The stage is set for a memorable mix of ancient and modern, where a search for a forgotten play will bring long-lost characters to life.
Tony Harrison’s play was written in 1988, and has not had a revival in London for almost thirty years. The award-winning Finborough Theatre has brought this play back to life, but in a more snug setting.
From the scorching heat of Egypt, via the lofty Apollonian mountains, all the way to the grubby side of modern London, this is a modern take on a Satyric play (the one that comes after the tragedies and comedies) that takes you on a journey you wouldn’t quite expect.
The scene is set with two Oxford dons, poring over papyrus in the search for a scrap of classic text, amongst the mulch of petitions from common folk. Sophocles could be lurking, just under the next lump of camel dung. So intent is Grenfell on this task, that he becomes possessed by the spirit of Apollo himself, who wants freedom from his filthy prison after 2000 years of waiting about.
Soon we are whisked to a magical world, where satyrs carouse and stamp, and nymphs and gods roam freely. Yet, there is something more going on here. In between the word-play the rhyming and comedic language (if only the actors had paused to allow a little more laughter!) and the stamp gin, a darker social message begins to emerge. Why is it, still, that the world is still so divided, so separated into ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, as it was all those years ago?
Harrison’s modern take on a classical Greek form gives you plenty to enjoy – humour, euphoria (love the satyrs stamping around with their felt penises flapping free) and excitement, but it also leaves you with a touch of regret. In all these years, we have not managed to forge a society that includes everyone in the makings and enjoyment of art.
Tom Purbeck’s Apollo is a dastardly, slightly deranged figure, who scorns those he believes to be beneath him, delivered with vigour and authority. Richard Glaves, as Silenus, gives us exuberance and tragedy, with his contemplation of the stage he is not allowed to inhabit one of the most moving points in the performance.
At times, the sheer scale of the play feels a little hemmed in by its setting, as though the actors are perhaps toning things down, because they aren’t allowed the full rein of a bigger theatre space. Having said that, the Finborough does allow you to get up close and personal in a way that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have experienced. Watch out for your toes on the front row!
A memorable spectacle, delivering a poignant blend of classical and modern.