Following his acclaimed production of John Osborne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern, director Jimmy Walters returns to the Finborough Theatre in January with Tony The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Tony Harrison. Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves star in the play’s first London staging for nearly 30 years as Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two archaeologists sent to Egypt to dig up lost poetry and plays, who end up becoming part of a story they’ve discovered.
“It was a whole new challenge with this project,” explains Jimmy. “I thought, do I want to do the same thing again or do I want to make apples and oranges? I think if you constantly put yourself outside of your comfort zone then that’s a much more exciting place to be.”
Despite the weighty title, audiences won’t need an in-depth knowledge of Greek literature to appreciate the play: “It helps to know that the satyr play was staged deliberately after three tragedies in order to lighten the mood of the evening, and that satyrs are half man half goat creatures with large penises. Other than that you can just be entertained and learn a lot, which is great. I would say that this is not a dense academic play, despite the long title. It’s completely accessible with some laugh out loud moments put up against some real poignancy. This is our most entertaining play we’ve done yet but also the most powerful. Hands down.”
This is not the first play Jimmy’s directed that hasn’t been performed for many years; he co-founded his company, Proud Haddock, to celebrate unearthed stories from classical playwrights. What’s the appeal of unearthing these buried treasures? “I think it’s that great thing of taking a playwright who’s loved by many and unearthing a story of theirs people don’t know very well. If you just perform the classics then it becomes more about people wondering how you are going to approach each scene. ‘I wonder how they’ll do the balcony scene’, and everyone pre-empts ‘to be or not to be’. To tell a story people aren’t familiar with by someone they regard as a genius has a very strong effect.”
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus was originally written for a one-off performance in the ancient stadium of Delphi, and was later seen at the National Theatre. Jimmy believes that the absence of any other recent adaptations makes his job as director easier: “It’s why if you talk to actors who play roles other actors have played before, they try and avoid watching their performances. It narrows your choices and you can run the risk of imitating. Also, if I had access to lots of adaptations I’d probably freak myself out and put so much pressure on myself. I think at the end of the day it must come from you. Those instincts you have from reading the script are yours and you should just go for it.”
Tony Harrison is an award-winning poet-playwright, who last year won the David Cohen Prize for Literature. What is it that makes his writing so special? “He loves contrast,” says Jimmy. “He’s a poet, so that gives the play a rhythm and the contrasts are everywhere. Contemporary v period, ancient Greek language against modern day slang, high art against low art, rich against poor etc. He doesn’t deal with any grey areas. He makes the familiar strange, and takes things you’re used to hearing in a certain way and turns them on their head. It’s punchy, unapologetic and deeply affecting. You have to be careful with this word because it gets thrown around too often – but he is a genius.”
Although The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus deals with ancient texts, and is set in the early 20th century, it still has plenty to say to modern audiences: “Oh, big time,” Jimmy confirms. “The last section of the play actually takes place in modern day London and with everything that’s happened recently with Brexit and the lack of unity in the country, this couldn’t be more relevant. It could have been written yesterday.”
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is at the Finborough Theatre from 3rd-28th January.