Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is as much about class as the classics, says CONRAD LANDIN, but that
vital point is obscured in a misguided production
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus Finborough Theatre, London SW10 2/5
THE CLASSICS are never far away from Tony Harrison’s work and their relevance in the modern age is at the heart of this play which explores the 1907 discovery of a lost Sophocles satyr play on an Egyptian rubbish tip.
In it, the “tracking” process of discovery is put into parallel with the events of the satyr play Ichneutae, in which the satyrs track down Apollo’s lost cattle.
As a chorus of clog-clad satyrs bursts out of the crates containing the found papyri, archaeologists Hunt and Grenfell morph into Apollo and satyr leader Silenus. Harrison’s typically magnificent and savage verse presents a clear conflict between the two.
Yet it also confronts us with a critique of the established dichotomy between the worlds of Apollo, the god of music, truth, poetry and rationality and Dionysus, connected with wine and revelry.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contended that these two strains, always in conflict, were last successfully fused by the tragedians of ancient Greece. But Trackers presents the division of high and low culture as an act of sheer brutality.
After the satyrs are denied the lyre they discovered on their tracking quest, they become drunken hooligans who destroy the texts of their heritage.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Walters’s production is too often overblown in fleshing out the contradictions with Tom Purbeck, playing Grenfell and Apollo, crying wolf with his declamations.
When all should be profound, all becomes rather pedestrian, though Peta Cornish fares better as the resolute nymph Kyllene and Amy Lawrence’s choreography ensures the satyr chorus holds together well as a single entity.
Yet the production is let down by inconsistent northern accents and the elements of audience participation — an opportunity to enact the awkwardness of questioning the Apollonian and Dionysiac split in the bourgeois theatre — falls rather flat.
Trackers lays the blame for today’s destitution and the exclusion of the working class from high culture firmly at the feet of our overlords. It’s a play about class as much as the classics and an angry reckoning.
If only this revival, though searing at certain points, was not let down by its clumsiness. Runs until January 28, box office: finboroughtheatre.co.uk
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