THE TRACKERS OF OXYRHYNCHUS
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 10 October, 1998

In 1897, two Oxford papyrologists, sifting through the debris of the ancient Greek-Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, discovered only the second surviving Greek satyr-play 400 lines of Sophocles' Ichneutae. Ten years ago, Tony Harrison staged his palimpsest upon the Sophoclean fragment at Delphi, subsequently revising and reconceiving it for a National Theatre run in 1990. Barrie Rutter, who created the twin roles of A.S. Hunt and Silenus, now directs a co-production between his Northern Broadsides company and the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

As far as I can tell from reviews of its 1990 incarnation (which I did not see), Rutter more or less recreates Harrison's production. Adrian Rees's design retains the packing-cases which burst open to reveal not heaps of papyrus but orange-body-stockinged, proud-phallused, clog-dancing satyrs; musical director Terry Davies works from Stephen Edwards's largely percussive score (although it looked to me as if, bizarrely, the onstage musicians were actually using the percussion beaters in their hands to play synthesizer keyboards). Even the contrast between Rutter's own uneasy performance as an Oxonian scholar and his confident vigour as the satyr-in-chief is, to judge from my colleague Martin Hoyle's 1990 review, in keeping with that of the original presentation.

The uneasiness of the play's tone as a whole also remains. Harrison cleverly interweaves the scholars' "tracking" of the Sophoclean play with its own tale of the satyrs' tracking of Apollo's missing cattle (just as Rutter's Hunt becomes Silenus, Conrad Nelson's more highly-strung B.P. Grenfell has already been possessed by Apollo) and, when it is revealed that the kine have been stolen by Hermes and their body parts used to make the first lyre, the author, through the god and the satyrs, gets stuck into the Apollonian-versus-Dionysian debate. The rumbustious near-doggerel verse has been retouched in places to include Leeds-specific references.

The heart of the play, however, is Harrison's inconclusive consideration of modern culture, its appropriation as a tool to divide society and its ultimate value in a society so divided. As the satyrs were transformed into the shambling inhabitants of a cardboard city (a less geographically trenchant coup here than on the South Bank), the press-night audience laughed not the embarrassed sniggers of those confronted with an awkward proposition, but the suppressed chuckles of those who are blithely missing the point. There could be little more persuasive evidence that such things still need to be said, and said with such passion as emerges for the final half-hour of The Trackers, shucking off the weeds of the overlong Northern classical pantomime which precedes it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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