Many plays that are performed take place over a limited time span. Anything from a few hours to a couple of days. However, there is the odd one that spans a time period from the 5th Century BC to 2017, a range of some 2500 years. Not an easy feat you may think and to cover this in seventy-five minutes is nigh on impossible. However, it is not only possible but is currently happening at the Finborough Theatre where The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus has returned to London after nearly thirty years.
The story starts in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt where archaeologists and Oxford Dons Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Hunt (Richard Glaves) are searching amongst the ancient papyrus fragments matching the pieces to make documents. Whilst most of the re-united fragments are fairly mundane – mostly pleas from the local peasantry – Grenfell is looking for something in particular. Prodded by a vision of the God Apollo, he is desperately trying to find the text to a lost play of Sophocles: “The Tracking Satyrs”. Now, we go back over nineteen hundred years to the play itself where Apollo tasks Silenus to use his satyrs (Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dylan Mason, Dannie Pye, James Rigby and Adam Small) to find Apollo’s lost herd of cows. Eventually, and with the help of a mountain nymph Kyllene (Peta Cornish), they find the herd, but due to the intervention of the baby Hermes, the animals are not as they were but have been transformed into something amazing that has a profound effect on Apollo, the satyrs, and mortal man.
The first thing to say about The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is that this is no ordinary play. In fact, it’s probably one of the oddest things I’ve seen. The performance starts as the audience arrive with Greville, Hunt and their Fellaheen workers going through the piles of papyrus fragments that inhabit Philip Lindley’s very effective set. Considering how close the performers were to the audience who were walking in around them, I was very impressed at how everyone kept completely in character throughout. Once the play started, the next great surprise was that writer Tony Harrison has written it in rhyming verse. Not necessarily my favourite way of telling a story but something that worked extremely well in this production. The story itself is easy to follow – despite its movement in time and space – and I was really impressed with the final ‘scene’ which brought the narrative fully up to date and showed the dichotomy of modern life where the poor sleep outside the great edifices to the arts unable to afford the price of a ticket to see a performance. Director Jimmy Walters has put together an assured production – I particularly enjoyed the ‘Greek-along’ moment – that, if it has one minor failing, feels a tad too big for the space available to it.
Turning to the actors and they were all extremely good in their respective roles. Tom Purbeck really shone as both the maniacally obsessed archaeologist Grenfell and the arrogant god Apollo. Silenus and his satyrs could have been overplayed and distracted from the story – particularly when their highly revealing costume is taken into account – but luckily they didn’t and I found them quite endearing with their northern accents and clogs for hooves.
All told then I rather enjoyed, The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus. It is a fascinating story and this is a really good production. My one concern, as mentioned above, is that the performance felt a little constrained by the performance space – I could definitely see this production working better on a larger stage. Other than that, I would recommend The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus as a show definitely worth seeing.
Review by Terry Eastham
“I’m a God, Apollo, but I was tipped
On a rubbish tip inside this manuscript.
I’ve spent two thousand years asleep
On an Oxyrhynchus rubbish heap.”
In a new production commissioned by the Finborough Theatre, the rediscovery of Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus in its first London production for nearly 30 years.
Egypt, 1907. Two archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, are searching for ancient fragments of poetry and plays, next to an old rubbish heap.
Until the Greek God, Apollo, descends from the skies…
Apollo is furious that they have failed to unearth the fragmentary text of a lost Satyr play by Sophocles. As he forces the two papyrologists to find the lost play, Grenfell and Hunt become part of the story they have discovered.
Multi-award-winning poet and playwright Tony Harrison remakes the ancient Greek original into a play for our times – and rediscovers the satyr play. Originally written to follow performances of all the great Greek tragedies, the satyr play is a short tragicomedy featuring a chorus with goat-like features and erect phalluses which is an essential and often neglected part of ancient Greek theatre.
Originally written for a unique one-performance world premiere in the ancient stadium of Delphi in 1988 with a cast including Jack Shepherd, Barrie Rutter and Juliet Stevenson, and subsequently seen at the National Theatre in 1990, this production is the first London production in nearly 30 years.
3rd to 28th January 2017
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm.
Sunday Matinees at 3.00pm.
Saturday Matinees 3.00pm (from 14 January 2017).
Performance Length: Approximately 75 minutes with no interval.