An opportunity to catch a rare staging in a production that does not disappoint. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was originally written for a one-off performance in Greece in 1988. Last seen in London almost 30 years ago in a production run at the National Theatre in 1990, the play has just opened at the Finborough Theatre, Earls Court and runs until 28th January.

Based on the true story of two Oxford dons, Grenfell and Hunt, playwright Tony Harrison weaves the tale of their discovery of papyrus fragments of a lost play with that ancient drama’s own characters. He adds a further layer which re-imagines some of those characters (the mischievous satyrs of Greek mythology), in contemporary society as homeless boorish youths. The result is a piece about a Sophocles play, written in rhyming couplets which nevertheless seems absolutely contemporary and relevant today, confronting us with questions about the injustices of hierarchy in art and society.

Director Jimmy Walters has revised the play to bring it into proportion with the intimate setting of the Finborough. Out go the grotesque giant phalluses that sensationalized the 1990 production and instead we become involved with the satyrs as characters. At such close quarters, we warm to their northern accents, joyful clogging and indulgent drinking but it is this very intimacy which later make us very uncomfortable when they adopt contemporary guises as hooded youths assaulting one of their own at the end of the play.

Tom Purbeck (star of BBC’s Hollow Crown) gives us an Oxford scholar tortured to the edge of his sanity by a responsibility and an opportunity to release ancient dramas from the pile of detritus that society has left over the years. Possessed, he gives us an Apollo of Edwardian melodrama and while his theatricalities robbed us of a more carefully drawn character, he never sacrifices meaning to the crazed delivery.
Richard Glaves (known for his role in King Charles III) defines his two characters in a way that draws sympathy for both. As Hunt, the Oxford don, he shows genuine interest in the piles of papyrus that his colleague sees as rubbish – petitions from the homeless. As Silenus, head of the satyrs, Glaves switches from an upper class accent to a northern brogue to convey a likeable, slightly cowardly figure who is caught between fighting injustice and the binds of tradition that keep him in his place.

At the heart of this play is art itself. Every parallel (from the double casting to the rhyming couplets) reminds us that we adhere to a hierarchy of high art (represented by the lyre) and low art (here the clogging of the satyrs). The struggle of the satyrs to gain access to the lyre is not just obstructed but unmercifully met in the violent reaction of the gods to keep them away from it. Yet the lyre is the sound made by a “dead thing” and there are so many references to filth and defecation that we are left in no doubt that high art (and Apollo’s shrill defence of it) is nothing lofty at all, but rooted in the earthliness of humanity.

Walters clearly wants to overturn our stereotypical idea of the satyrs as simple-minded mischief-makers, but creatives denied opportunity. The satyr ‘chorus’ achieve this by giving us a collection of characters who can detect, reason, track and make music. Some of their essential earthiness is lost in the sheer youth of the actors, who can never quite take us away from the context of actors playing all these parts in a leafy London street. However, their casting allows for a clear social point to be made at the end when they reappear is hoodies, lurking below a backdrop of London’s Festival Hall.

Ultimately, the sheer proximity of the audience to the cast in this small theatre, the involvement of the audience by the actors and the excellent delivery by all the actors which gave each pun a light but clear expression, made this a very accessible production. The multi-layered narrative, the switching between time-scales, between human and mythological, the rhyming couplet script could certainly suggest a very confusing seventy five minutes, but the Walters and his cast take us through the tale with such care and precision that you will never feel lost. You will laugh, you will ponder and you will certainly continue to pull at threads and parallels long after you have left the theatre.
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