The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Tony Harrison’s 1998 will either divide or conquer its audience with its intense performances and its rhyming couplets.
I failed to really research this production prior to seeing it. I waltzed in with my double G&T expecting an Edwardian drama about two Oxford dons in the Egyptian Desert I was soon surprised to get swearing, fake penises and rhyming couplets.
I have mixed feelings on rhyming couplets; Andrew Maddock’s The WE Plays in 2016 did it to great effect in its double bill of monologues but I struggled with this as the rhyming just felt very adolescent and not really challenging for the audience or Harrison. There are so many cringe-inducing examples of rhyme
“I’m a God, Apollo, but I was tipped
On a rubbish tip inside this manuscript.
I’ve spent two thousand years asleep
On an Oxyrhynchus rubbish heap.”
The actual story does start with Edwardian Oxford papyrologists, Bernard Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Arthur Hunt (Richard Glaves), are searching for ancient fragments of poetry and plays, next to an old rubbish heap in Oxyrhynchus, apart from the rhyming couplets this so far so conventional but it then takes a bizarre turn. Grenfell, assumingly going mad with his lack of progress in finding poetry as opposed to Greek petitions from the ancient poor becomes Apollo and Hunt becomes Silenus, the lead Satyr (in reference to his much better relationship with the poor men who had been struggling to find the poetry Hunt so craved). What follows is Harrison’s version of Sophocles’ Ichneutae, which was found in 1912 amongst the papyrus but its message of high art vs low art is lost amongst the vulgarity of the piece
The strongest performances were from Purbeck, who embraces the dated piece with the slightly imposing and at times over the top performance being Apollo requires, whereas Glaves and Peta Cornish find the subtleness in their characters Silenius (who has a lovely monologue towards the end) and as Nymph Kyllene, a character that brings the calm amongst the storm of Satyrs who shouted and stomped in Games of Thrones-esque Lancashire accents. The chorus of Satyrs is a crucial part of this piece but I felt so unrewarded by Harrison and the whole production. This should be a timely revival as we look at how accessible theatre is not just to the patrons, as ticket prices rocket, but to the people that want to be actors, writers, directors, set designers etc as prices to train become extortionate. The issue is that this play looks at “high art” and “low art” but the lines are blurred now. For example, see musicals at the English National Opera such as Sweeney Todd and the upcoming Bat Out of Hell and is one of the things that makes it feel very dated as a piece of theatre, when I am sure it was a shocker to have on at The National Theatre in 1990.
As a production it looks and sounds great, embracing its small space rather than trying to work around it with projections and Philip Lindley’s set works well with Jimmy Walters direction but it seems unsure of its purpose and is too risky an adaptation of an ancient work.