Thebes Land – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Sergio Blanco
Director: Daniel Goldman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Crouched inside a three-metre high metal cage is, we are told, a very dangerous creature, a young man convicted of patricide who is on temporary release from HMP Belmarsh with strict security conditions to protect the public. He is, of course, an actor and the deceit is so obvious that we question why Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco would have bothered with it and why he thought it worth the impairment  to audience sight lines that the cage causes. However, these turn out to be passing concerns.

tell-us-block_editedThe play, getting its UK premier here, translated and adapted by director Daniel Goldman, seems to take pleasure in misleading its audience, almost as if Blanco is trying to divert from the suspicion that its core element, a confrontation between a troubled young man and his interrogator, is a reworking of the formula devised by Peter Shaffer for Equus. Yet, as the drama progresses, it becomes clearer that the diversions themselves have purpose, the themes evolving from a study of the psychology of patricide into a fascinating analysis of the processes involved in creating a piece of theatre. It transpires that Blanco’s real concern is how a writer connects with both his subject and his interpreter (the actor) to bring his work to the stage.

The title refers to the Oedipus legend, yet Blanco dwells on the point that Oedipus himself, being unaware of his parents’ identities, did not possess an “Oedipus Complex” in the strict sense defined by Freud. On the other hand, the killer here, Martin, was fully aware of who his victim was, but his father had been a cruel bully and violent abuser and we do not need to go into the depths of the mind to find the justification for the murder. Mercifully, this opt out allows Blanco to keep his writing relatively free of cod psychology.

The writer, known as just “T”, is played with calm authority by Trevor White, lecturing the audience as if presenting a case study, from outside the cage and interacting with Martin and Freddie, the actor who will be playing Martin, when inside. The house lights remain up for most of the performance, underlining a deliberate clinical feel, but the drama moves subtly into emotional territory in the second act. Somewhat predictably, Martin, afflicted by epilepsy, becomes more victim than monster and equally predictably, bonds are formed between the characters. T is visibly taken aback when confronted with the homoerotic undertones touching both of his relationships, but this emphasises Blanco’s essential argument that real life and theatre are inseparable.

Martin’s cage doubles as a Basketball court and he occupies it like a zoo animal as the audience enters and takes his shots at the net throughout the interval. Alex Austin may not be the best Basketball player, but he gives remarkable performances both as Martin and Freddie, switching between the two effortlessly. His Martin is deeply disturbed and inarticulate, but reaching out for human contact and his Freddie is conscientious, about to graduate from RADA, and almost imperceptibly becoming entwined in Martin’s fate.

Spiced up with cultural references including Seneca, Mozart, Whitney Houston and the rules of Basketball, Blanco’s intriguing play is structured elaborately, sometimes overly so, but its themes are not as unduly complex as references to Greek legend and Freud may suggest and Goldman’s superbly acted production offers many pleasures, even though some of them are blocked out by the cage.

Runs until 23 December 2016 | Image: Alex Brenner

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