Review: The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at the Finborough Theatre

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.

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

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.)

Photo credit: Samuel Taylor
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Jimmy Walters, The Trackers of Oxyrynchus

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.”

Photo credit: Robert Boulton
Photo credit: Robert Boulton

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.