Thebes Land, Arcola Theatre

Guest review by Suzy Norman

Thebes is quite a brutal and unforgiving place, the land where Oedipus’s father was murdered, the land that persecuted Antigone for trying to bury her brother. It’s a warring and unsettling place. So then, an appropriate title for this play by Sergio Blanco, set in a caged basketball court where the sense of claustrophobia never quite leaves us.

The beauty of theatre is there are many ways to tell a tale. Thebes Land by Sergio Blanco (Blanco is from Uruguay, who also lived in Paris), is, on one hand, a tale of a man (Martin, played thrillingly by Alex Austin) who killed his father with a fork. On the other hand, it’s so much more. Take a devised piece of theatre and use it to blow away all previously conceived ideas we have about theatre. Can you imagine what it feels like to murder your own father? The play though subtly asks an uglier question: can you imagine the horror of being incarcerated for the rest of your life?

The sense of claustrophobia could be overwhelming if it wasn’t for the regular doses of humour peppered generously throughout every quarter (the play is divided into quarters, like a basketball game), and if it wasn’t for the warmth and humanity in the characters, this could have been difficult viewing. Martin is in some ways Ariel-like, never quite weighted in his feet, a fly caught in a web. In other sections, he commands the space solidly as he flicks around the cage in confusion and desperation. “Will he look like me?” Martin asks playwrite T when he learns he won’t be in the play after all due to legal reasons. Alex Austin as Martin works hard to make sure he is fleshed out.

Our empathy for Martin is helped by the CCTV footage above them. We share in the knowledge he is always being watched – and from every angle. Information is fed to us gradually and sympathetically about the relationship between him and his father. The section where he describes stabbing his father to death is protracted and graphic but we are almost rooting for him knowing what his father did to him. With less chance to shine (the role of Martin is surely a gift to the right actor), nonetheless, Trevor White was deeply convincing as the straight-shooting but conflicted liberal T.

The truth waivers in Blanco’s play. We never truly trust T’s motives (he’s adept at defenestrating Martin’s truth when it suits him, stylising it with his own Greek and Freudian references). Yet it is always clear to the audience which bits of the play are documented and which parts are improvised. Perhaps a little more blurring of the truth and fiction would have made this piece magical. Nonetheless, the relationship between these two men is a complex push and pull arrangement, deftly handled by director Daniel Goldman who merged truth and fantasy with passion.

The Arcola is an intimate venue and I like to see small venues used imaginatively. A great merging of space and content was had last night. Do try and see it if you can.

Thebes Land is on until 7 October https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/thebes-land-rerun/ 

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