Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Theatre review: Thebes

I don't think I've seen The Faction tackle Greek Tragedy before - surprising really, as the importance of the Chorus would seemingly make it a good match for a company built around an ensemble. If they've neglected the genre before they make up for it by doing three in one: Gareth Jandrell has taken the various plays by Aeschylus and Sophocles dealing with noted motherfucker Oedipus and his legacy, and knitted them into a single epic history of Thebes. We begin with the city's king Oedipus (Lachlan McCall) at the height of his hubris, angrily demanding that the killer of his predecessor be found, and dismissing all the signs pointing to the fact that he himself is the killer. When it becomes obvious that he fulfilled the prophecy to kill his father and marry (or fuck, in this no-nonsense translation) his mother (Kate Sawyer,) he blinds himself and sets out to die - but in the process leaves a dangerous power vacuum in his city.

So we follow straight on to the story of the Seven Against Thebes, in which Oedipus' sons fight for control of the city and both die - leaving the story ready for that other most famous of tragedies, as Antigone (Derval Mellett) is left to deal with the very different treatment given her brothers' bodies.

I don't know how well Thebes would tell its story to someone unfamiliar with the mythology but I suspect, given Greek Tragedy has fairly leisurely storytelling to begin with, that compressing the saga shouldn't leave newcomers too confused. For me it provided an interesting middle ground between a traditional tragedy and a more modern rewrite of the myths, and following the through-line of the story like this makes it, in some ways, the story of Creon (Cary Crankson.) Generally the villain of the piece, and no angel here, we do however get to see his story from start to finish, which may not make us sympathetic to him but does make him more understandable. Although giving an actor with a lisp the line "syphilitic lisping" does seem cruel and unusual on any number of levels.

In another way though the title is most apt as telling the three stories together, with the whole ensemble weaving in and out of the Chorus of citizens, makes this a companion piece to the Oresteia's celebration of democracy - the starving populace, suffering generations of conflict under their cursed kings, eventually taking government into their own hands. The heavy material does get a few scenes of light relief, as Tom Radford's Haemon disastrously attempts to flirt with his cousin Antigone, the whole "curse from the gods" thing not really having put him off trying to marry his relatives; and Christopher Hughes as the guard with little sense of self-preservation is fun as well.

Rachel Valentine Smith's production does, as I had hoped, use the formal structure as a starting point to integrate the company's trademark abstract movement style quite successfully, although it's overused and starts to border on self-parody - The Faction's audiences always seem to be packed with sniggering schoolgirls who don't particularly want to be there, but when the company's post-interval lamentations sound so much like mooing, they've only got themselves to blame if people get the giggles. And I know I say this every time, but I really would like to see more sense of purpose in their productions' overall designs and themes - it must be Lachlan McCall's season for bafflingly out-of-context costumes, his priest Horatio followed by a greasy biker Oedipus for reasons that I'm sure were obvious in rehearsal but don't particularly come across to the audience. Overall though another strong entry from the company, and a genre they really could get great results with in future.

Thebes by Gareth Jandrell after Aeschylus and Sophocles is booking in repertory until the 22nd of February at the New Diorama Theatre; and on the 26th of February and 1st of March at Greenwich Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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