The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus

Tom Purbeck, James Rigby and Dannie Pye in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

After almost 30 years, Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus has been recommissioned for a run at the Finborough Theatre. It is inspired by the ancient Greek ‘satyr play’, which is a form of tragicomedy that features groups of satyrs (creatures from Greek mythology) who often behave in a crude & boisterous manner, and usually includes some sort of dance.

The play is set in Oxyrhynchus (Egypt), Mount Cyllene & London – flipping from 1907 to the 5th century BC, and ending in 2016. It begins with Hunt & Grenfell employing men to help in their search for some specific scraps of papyrus, before Grenfell seemingly becomes possessed by the god Apollo and the action changes to a part of a Sophocles satyr play, Ichneutae (“The Trackers”), in which Apollo asks the satyrs to retrieve his stolen cattle. The play ends in modern-day London, with a group of homeless men bedding down for a night on the streets. Confused yet?

Richard Glaves in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

It’s all written entirely in rhyme, the reason for which I can’t quite fathom (other than Harrison himself being a poet as well as a playwright). Ultimately it’s quite distracting and makes the plot (if there is one) hard to follow – there are also many moments where words are repeated over & over in order to fit the cadence of the line (e.g. “and, and, and”), which feels stilted & unnatural, as well as being rather unimaginative. The story doesn’t really make any sense, and makes no attempt to resolve itself. Its ending links tenuously to the beginning only by the mention of vagrants, coming out of nowhere and not fitting with the rest of the story. At one stage it seems as if they’re trying to make a point about art being for everyone, the next as if the point is to raise awareness about homelessness. By all means, try to make a serious point, but it can’t just be thrown in with no real link to the rest of the play. I’d much rather see it resolve itself properly by returning to Oxyrhynchus in 1907.

The audience participation segment (repeating some words in ancient Greek) is awkward, laboured & feels really out of place. It seems later on as if Silenus was going to get us to repeat it again, but then thinks better of it.

Dylan Mason and Tom Purbeck in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

The stage setup doesn’t seem to have been thought through; there is an extended section where the middle is curtained off, leaving Grenfell talking alone against a dull beige backdrop with very little space. The background design of ancient Greek letters is a nice detail to remind us of the beginning, though it is a bit out of place when the action jumps to modern London.

The cast do their best to work with what they’ve been given; Tom Purbeck (Grenfell/Apollo) & Richard Glaves (Hunt/Silenus) commit to their roles admirably and certainly lead from the front. However, as far as I’m concerned, there’s not a lot anyone could do in terms of performance to patch this up and turn it into a meaningful play.

Tom Purbeck in The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus
Photo credit: Samuel Taylor

My verdict? A perplexing play, with few redeeming features, that makes 75 minutes feel like hours – it seems to serve no real purpose whatsoever.

Rating: 2*

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus runs at Finborough Theatre until 28 January 2017. Tickets are available online and from the box office.

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