Sunday, 8 January 2017

Review The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
by Tony Harrison

Mind The Gaps

In a world where the collection of data has become inextricably linked with cultural dominance, Tony Harrison's 1988 funny yet ambiguous The Trackers Of Oxyrhnchus has a welome revival at the Finborough Theatre in a cut-down production directed by Jimmy Walters.

To our untutored classical ear, this verse play, written shortly before the end of the Cold War by Tony Harrison, cannily mixes the archaic and the contemporary, the allure of Tutankhamun-like archeological digs with the then in-the-news music and recording industry's exploitation of young musicians.

All within the framework of the lewd and bawdy satyric play with the potential for tragedy, an almost-lost theatrical form which accompanied the ritual tragedies and comedies of ancient Greece.

This strange but compelling piece is itself  divided into three fragments. An imperial 1907 archeological expedition with two dons seeking to export in crates their papyrus finds to an Oxford University collection.  A 5th century BC mythological age of Greek gods and cloven-hoofed phallicly well-endowed, part goat, part horse, part human, satyrs. And then current-day London, via National Service, the South Bank's 1951 Festival of Britain and the 1970s' National Theatre.

The two obsessed dons, Bernard Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Arthur Hunt (Richard Glaves) are supervising a phalanx of Egyptian workers uncovering ancient scraps on a rubbish heap.

Disappointingly for the intense Grenfell, legal petitions from disenfranchised citizens outnumber slivers of literature including a long-lost satyr play of Sophocles - every legible word matched by an equal number of illegible phrases and huge gaps in the papyrii.

Grenfell's mental state proves to be the gateway to a past mythological world where Apollo possesses the don's mind demanding the mortal puts together the lost play without any gaps where the meglomaniac Greek god is both main character and superstar actor.

Apollo also demands total control over the arts maintaining an artistic class system which excludes satyrs from creating or playing.

Nevertheless the call to excavate the long-lost play also acccompanies Apollo depending on the satyrs, lured by a reward of gold and freedom, to find his lost herd of cattle. Indeed, the herd only proves to be another gateway to the production and reproduction of music unlicensed by Apollo.

Harrison is a Leeds Grammar schoolboy who read classics, not at Oxbridge, but at his local redbrick university. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus takes a niche piece of historical and literary excavation, tracking its wider implications.

He takes as his starting point a reality - the expedition of Grenfell and Hunt using Grenfell's historically recorded real-life mental illness to lead us finally into a world where the past, the contemporary and the mythological uneasily co-exist together.

The leader of the satyrs (Richard Glaves transformed from Hunt) brings the audience through a Good Old Days Leeds Variety type singalong. Except the audience is instructed in a smattering of Greek to sing along to as a charm to raise the  boozy, lusty satyrs. They burst out from the confines of the crated papyrii on which Sophocles wrote his satyr to erupt into a spirited proletarian clog dance choreographed by Amy Lawrence.

It's certainly a very male play, a hold broken only by the fragile yet self sufficient nymph Kyllene (Peta Cornish) bringing a statuesque female dignity, a Victorian view of nymphs, contrasting with the rumbustious satyrs as they seek Apollo's lost animals.

Mixing classical stanzas, what snobby bloggers (!!!) might call popular culture, a kind of Dr Seuss frivolously serious didacticism, the dramatic conflicts over translation and artistic creation widen and darkens into the failure of idealism, increasing suppression and censorship.

Walters' energetic direction safeguards the lively pace and comedy but also clearly delineates a grevious uncertain, repressive status quo.

Designer Phil Lindley's tattered papyrii hangings, stone slabs and one dimensional pillars ingeniously evoke the Egyptian excavation and transform into a mythological backdrop before the archeological layers are completed by projections of modern London on the backcloths.

The costumes by Alexander William Connatty are equally unfussy and effective. Last, but not least, the lighting of Tara Marricdale takes on a central communal status and tellingly obscures as the ideal retreats into more violent consequences. 

And somehow Harrison's fidelity to multiple sources, the orginal history and texts, yoked together with a fluent train of thought rather than cut and paste as they emerge into the modern world,  insures a resonance in our current digital environment. Director Walters has only to make the lightest of updates - mobile phones, capable of filming violent acts, and isolating earphones instead of boomboxes - to keep the play pertinent.

For  we live in an age where artistic creation is now subsumed into and consumed as "content". The most popular, easy-to-reach websites often dominate with one sole interpretation of events and  control of such data, whether collected by companies or the state, raises the possibility of abusive monopoly commercial exploitation.

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus still feels seriously relevant. Even the unwieldy title seems to anticipate our cookie-tracked digital age and it's a green light for this intriguing, humorous yet troubling play. 

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