Proud Haddock’s production of The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus opens in Egypt in 1907, where two archaeologists and a team of local men are sifting through scraps of ancient papyrus. It’s an appropriate introduction to Tony Harrison’s 1988 play, which has itself been unearthed and given new life nearly 30 years after its last London performance.
Grenfell and Hunt (Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves) are academics searching for a lost satyr play by Sophocles. Dismayed at their lack of success – all they seem to find is endless petitions for help from the dispossessed – Grenfell grows increasingly obsessive, and Hunt starts to worry about him… with good reason, as it turns out. Before we quite know what’s happening, Grenfell’s been possessed by the god Apollo, while Hunt’s transformed into Silenus, and (with a bit of audience participation) dramatically released his band of dancing satyrs.
From here, the story takes us to ancient Greece and into the lost play, Ichneutae, where Apollo charges the satyrs with tracking down his lost cattle, only for them to discover instead something far more valuable to him. And finally, we’re whisked off to London’s South Bank in 2016, where the effects of that discovery are still being felt – but not necessarily in a good way.
Believe it or not, all of this happens in 75 minutes. The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a whirlwind of a production that’s barely contained by the Finborough’s tiny stage, and allows very little time to process what’s going on – yet still somehow manages to remain accessible to those of us without a degree in ancient Greek literature. Don’t get me wrong, the story is completely bonkers, and there are certainly a good few moments where we’re left wondering what on earth just happened (the sudden appearance of Hermes the man-baby would be a good example). But it all comes together in the end, with a powerful message not only about the dichotomy between high and low art, but more broadly about the divide between rich and poor, and a direct appeal to the audience which challenges us to examine our own attitudes. (That said, the perfectionist in me would have welcomed a chance to circle back to the beginning of the story, if only to find out what happened to Grenfell and Hunt.)
Tom Purbeck and Richard Glaves lead the cast with strong performances, handling with ease Harrison’s rhyming verse. Purbeck particularly excels during a wild-eyed transformation from Grenfell to Apollo, his head snapping back and forth as the two personas war against each other. Glaves’ key moment comes late in the play, but is worth waiting for; as Silenus, he recounts movingly the flaying of his brother satyr Marsyas, who was punished by Apollo for having the temerity to become an accomplished flute player. But perhaps most memorable – for reasons that become obvious (costume designer Vari Gardner, take a bow) – are the satyrs, played by Dylan Mason, James Rigby, Nik Drake, Sacha Mandel, Dannie Pye and Adam Small. Energetic and irreverent, they stomp, dance and joke their way through the middle section of the play… yet this story is not destined to end happily, and their 21st century incarnations channel their energy in much darker ways.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is a decidedly odd play, entertaining and tragic in equal measure. Jimmy Walters’ production could at times move a little more slowly, and could certainly benefit from a slightly bigger stage – but given the nature of the play and its message, a small theatre, in which audience and artists are within touching distance, feels like an appropriate setting for the rediscovery of this little-known work.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is at the Finborough Theatre until 28th January.