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The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 6th Jan 2017 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

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Apollo (Tom Purbeck) and two sartyrs (James Rigby and Dannie Pye)

You need no consolations of high art,
Your human pain's cancelled by your horse / goat part.

Poet and playwright Tony Harrison's 1990 verse play is partially based on Ichneutae (The Trackers), a satyr play by Sophocles, which was found in fragments at the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. It is also a dramatised account of the discovery of the papyrus fragments of Sophocles' play by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt.

Originally written for one performance only in the ancient stadium of Delphi in 1988 with a cast including Jack Shepherd, Barrie Rutter and Juliet Stevenson, and subsequently presented at the National Theatre in 1990, the play now sees its first London production in nearly 30 years at the Finborough Theatre.

Oxyrynchus, Egypt, 1907. Oxford dons Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Hunt (Richard Glaves) are searching for Sophocles's lost masterpiece in a pile of rubbish but all they can find are petitions. Fellaheen workers help put all the papyri in boxes to ship them to Oxford before the natives use the historically valuable papyri as compost or burn them instead of studying them. At long last the two archaeologists find a fragment of a Sophoclean satyr play.

Grenfell is so dedicated to finding the rest of the manuscript that he becomes possessed by the Greek god Apollo who, after having been buried for 2000 years, demands that the missing text be found. Hunt has also changed into Silenus, leader of the satyrs. As the audience is asked to chant verses from the fragment along with the satyrs, we are taken back to Mount Cyllene, in the 5th century BC and into Sophocles' missing satyr play.

Apollo's herd has been stolen and he expects the satyrs to find them, promising them gold and their freedom. When the satyrs find the herd along with a lyre, built by Hermes, they want to keep the beautiful musical instrument along with the gold but Apollo refuses and retreats into a "clogless, desatyrized zone" to enjoy music and poetry, which is not meant for satyrs.

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Silenus (Richard Glaves)

Jimmy Walters' intriguing production benefits from Phil Lindley's set design featuring Greek columns and placards with Greek writing, boxes and papyri scattered across the stage. Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves convince as the dedicated archaeologists and excel as the arrogant god Apollo and Silenus, the leader of the satyrs - dressed in furry trousers with prominent phalluses. Peta Cornish as the delicate nymph Kyllene is not amused by the noisy stomping satyrs who indulge in drinking, sex and coarse jokes but helps them nonetheless to find the lost herd. The intimacy of the staging draws the audience into the performance even before the chant-along to revive the lost satyr play.

Tony Harrison's multi-layered drama that creates an arc from the satyr play to contemporary London criticizes the exclusion of the lower classes from the fine arts. Just like the satyrs, who turn into modern day hooligans in the course of the play, they are scorned and deemed too ignorant to understand high tragedy, poetry or serious music. The story of the satyr Marsyas, who challenged Apollo in a musical competition and was cruelly punished serves as a warning that improvement is not desired by the rulers.

An extraordinary and unusual play that should not be missed. 

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 28th January 2017

Finborough Theatre

118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED

Telephone 020 7244 7439

Running time: 80 minutes

Photographs by Samuel Taylor.

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