Charlotte Pegram reviews The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus at Finborough Theatre
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus hasn’t been seen on a UK stage for nearly 30 years, which is both sad and ironic. Written by Tony Harrison as a way of reinstating the satyr play (the comedy which is meant to follow a series of Greek tragedies) it is beautifully written and politically powerful.
The reason most people haven’t heard of this form of drama is that all bar one example of it had been lost to history. Trackers itself is a palimpsest of a play, pieced together from fragments of Sophocles’ The Ichneutae and weaved into a wider frame narrative about the search for a lost play.
Satyrs are commonly characterised as lewd creatures; half-man, half-goat (or half-horse if you consult the Greeks) to be found in the woodlands drinking and consorting with nymphs. So they are excellent characters to bring a little light relief to an audience who has just sat through hours of tragedy.
They bring plenty of comedy to the stage at the Finborough, although it’s fairly dark humour. The wider frame narrative sees two Edwardian professors searching through the scraps of papyrus, hoping to find some remnants of Ancient Greek literature, although all they seem to find are snippets of petitions- the echoes of ancient voices asking for help, begging to relieve their poverty and homelessness.
The one professor, Grenfell, is so intent on his desire to unearth a new play that he becomes possessed by the spirit of Apollo, who wants to find a lost play about himself. Tom Purbeck’s transformation from priggish professor to tyrannical God is impressive, and he carries the arch comedy of the lines well. Equally Grenfell’s fellow professor, Hunt, (Richard Glaves) makes a compelling transformation into the father of all satyrs, Silenus, who begins the search for the lost play and Apollo’s lost cows.
What begins as something bawdy and diverting ends up solemn and tragic. The stage is filled with a herd of tap dancing satyrs, their brown shoes made up like hooves and their brown furry trousers adorned with phallus’ of varying lengths. During their search for Apollo’s cows they find instead Hermes’ lyre, an instrument which Apollo claims for himself to the exclusion of the satyrs- they are not allowed to play a beautiful musical instrument because they are dirty satyrs.
And so begins the play’s tragic decline and Harrison’s social commentary. Satyrs fill the realm of low art and Apollo’s lyre marks the beginning of music, poetry and plays which dominate high art. Instead of being allowed to play the lyre, Apollo rewards the satyrs with some headphones which plays atonal electric music to which they cannot bear to listen. At this point the satyrs and their plays which have been lost in time become homeless youths- disenchanted and disempowered- who would rather graffiti over the papyrus or use it as toilet paper than conserve it for posterity. Their exclusion from high art has led to their exclusion from society, an argument that is less true in 2017 than it was in 1988, but nonetheless still has currency.
This is an admirable revival and worth seeing if you have never heard Tony Harrison’s rhyming verses aloud, the only downside is that the stage is not big enough to give the troupe of dancing satyrs space to really strut their stuff.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus plays at Finborough Theatre until January 28th