Writer: Tony Harrison
Director: Jimmy Walters
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
What happens to characters in books and plays when we’re not looking at them; are they like the tree in the forest and do they continue to exist somewhere waiting for their story to begin again? It’s a gloomy idea, these fictional creations living a half-life out of sight until we remember them, one that Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus explores for ancient texts whose content has been partially lost to time.
In 1907 two archaeologists are searching for fragments of papyrus for insights into the lives and poetry of Ancient Greece. While Hunt feels the many petitions about homelessness are most useful, his colleague Grenfell is searching for lost art which takes him into a dark territory, imagining he is conversing with the god Apollo. One night, one of Apollo’s stories comes to life as the Satyrs try to track down the god’s missing cattle and complete the tale Grenfell is hunting for.
Written in 1988 as a one-off drama and revived by the National Theatre in 1990, it’s been nearly 27 years since The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was last seen in London. It is a strange creation that utilises the bawdy spectacle of satyr plays while making connections to modern themes about the ways in which art is created and consumed, which this new production at the Finborough Theatre brings out well.
The idea that only educated and deserving people can and should be allowed to enjoy high forms of art – typified here by Apollo’s boast that the Satyrs are too lowly to appreciate the music of his newly created lyre – is one that resonates as traditionally ‘high’ art forms such as opera and ballet seek new audiences to dispel their elitist image. And Tom Purbeck’s tyrannical and snobbish performance as Apollo leaves the audience in no doubt that his view is entirely bigoted.
Yet, this production cuts somewhat unevenly between three different time periods and the start, set in Egypt in 1907 is probably the weakest aspect. Here Purbeck as Grenfell shouts almost continuously at the native Fellaheen who find the papyrus pieces for him and, while his temper foreshadows the type of Apollo he becomes, in the tiny Finborough space it is too overbearing, and a little nuance to show the passion of the man for his work would add depth.
It all starts to take shape in a sinister conversation between Grenfell and Apollo as Purbeck flips between each character as if possessed. Once the play-within-a-play begins, this production shows great style, particularly in the rowdy and bawdy presentation of the Satyrs whose stompy tap-dancing rituals are carefully choreographed by Amy Lawrence to convey a real sense of danger and intimidation. The group, played by Dylan Mason, James Rigby, Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dannie Pye and Adam Small, convince as they track the missing cows, and although the bawdier elements in the text are rushed over, their time on stage is highly engaging.
In the final section, the tone changes again as the tale we’ve seen becomes lost to time leading to the final, rather melancholy discussion about displaced characters wanting to return to their story. Richard Glaves gives a suitably pleading performance as lost Satyr, Silenus, although it’s not always clear in Jimmy Walters’ direction how the three parts of the story fit together tonally.
Phil Lindley’s design makes good use of a small space, particularly in the creation of the Egyptian tents and integrated projection, while Rob Mill’s lighting design is especially atmospheric in the Grenfell/Apollo scene. Although it seems Vari Gardner has had the most fun creating costumes for the Satyrs using furry brown leggings with comedy-sized genitalia sewn on.
This is a rare chance to see The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, a weird but interesting piece with much to say about the preservation and interest in ancient stories. Perhaps a partially missed opportunity for a tad more revelry and cheekiness in Satyr’s play but watching them for 75 minutes will at last rescue them from the wilderness of lost characters.
Runs until 28 January 2017 | Image: S R Taylor Photography