Home » tom purbeck » Review: 'The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus' at the Finborough Theatre, 5th January 2017
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Review: 'The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus' at the Finborough Theatre, 5th January 2017
Saturday, January 7, 2017 by londoncitynights
Does the 1812 Overture have more intrinsic value than While My Guitar Gently Weeps? Questions like these fuel Tony Harrison's The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus: a propulsive, high-spirited and rather pointed experiment in lyrical theatre. Over 75 minutes we explore dusty ruins, rub shoulders with A-listers of the Greek Pantheon and watch a chorus of floppy fabric cocks rhythmically bounce.
We open in 1907 with the search for a lost Sophocles play in the rubbish dumps of the ancient Greek city of Oxyrhynchus. The long dead inhabitants of the city scribbled through miles of papyrus, etching down everything from tax returns, receipts, petitions, census material, administrative correspondence, religious observances and, all too rarely, works of great literature.
Oxford papyrologists Grenville and Hunt are poring through all this, with Grenville particularly obsessed with finding a lost play by Sophocles - the needle in the haystack. Knowing it's out there, but being unable to find it is slowly driving him to mania: “How can a person sleep/while Sophocles is rotting on an ancient rubbish heap?”.
But he's got bigger problems to worry about. Eerie noises rumble out of two millennia old trash - that only Grenville can hear. These are premonitions of the God Apollo who, indignant at spending 2000 years in a sandy shithole, proceeds to possess poor Grenville and force him to devote every atom of energy towards unearthing 'his' play. Soon, in a brilliantly exciting moment of physical theatre, a troupe of horny, floppy dicked Satyrs leap from packing crates to aid Apollo, buoyed up by his promise of riches.
The structure of the piece winds and wends; characters gradually morphing from man to God, from mythological beasts to the modern London homeless, with 5th century Mount Cyllene slowly transforming into the South Bank of the Thames. The stylistic through line is Harrison's poetry, which ducks and weaves gracefully through the piece, one moment flying high through heavenly language, the next with its nose jammed in the dirt amidst the shit and piss.
Maintaining Harrison's rhythm is a performative high-wire act, start to stumble over the words and the whole show collapses. Fortunately, Proud Haddock are experts in enunciation and outstanding orators - casually picking their way through this dense material as if they do this sort of thing every day.
A highlight is Richard Glaves as Silenus, a satyr mourning the death of his brother Marsyas. He picked and mastered the flute, discarded by the goddess Athene (she thought she looked silly playing it). When the gods were confronted by a 'lowly' beast playing beautiful music, they coaxed him into a rigged competition that ended with his skin being flayed from his flesh. Glaves weaves a grief-stricken, bitter and furious tapestry - his visceral anger its own powerful critique of the division between 'refined' Apollonian art and 'popular' Dionysian entertainment.
Also quite extraordinary is watching Tom Purbeck being torn asunder by a furious Greek god. Purbeck's sinewy physique makes him look constantly under fierce tension and his twitchy, angular body language leaves you imagining some invisible puppetmaster yanking his strings high above the stage. There's an intimidatingly real glimmer of viciousness and sadism in Purbeck's eyes when he's playing Apollo - a Bullingdon Club sneer of a being who cares not for others, so long as he fulfills his own selfish desires.
The play ends on literary apocalypse, interrogating precisely why the arts are so obsessed with searching, studying and endlessly retreading the 'classics'. Earlier in the play, reams of petitions from desperate Oxyrhyncans, pleading "me metanastes" ("don't take my home from me") were discarded as a waste of papyrus. Surely recognising the pleas and miseries of these people and applying the lessons of the past to our time is more useful than dusting off whatever adventures Sophocles had the gods going on?
Harrison leaves the question tantalisingly open. Yet The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is no less satisfying for it. This is a timely and welcome revival that seems to expand way beyond the small interior of the Finborough Theatre, and precisely the kind of ambitious, dynamic and downright weird production I like seeing.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is at the Finborough Theatre until 28th January. Tickets here.