Arcola, 8 December 2016
Thebes Land, which opened at the Arcola this week, is a dazzling night at the theatre. Cleverly written, blazingly acted and generally beautifully realised by director Daniel Goldman, it holds the audience in the palm of its hand.
Perhaps that’s enough. It’s certainly more than a lot of plays deliver. There’s no harm, and a great deal of virtue, in a play which provides two and a quarter hours of pleasing diversion and no more. But Thebes Land, with its weighty theme of patricide and references to Sophocles, Mozart and Dostoevsky, seems to aspire to more than that. If it does so, it doesn’t deliver.
Of course, it might not aim to do that all. The cultural name-dropping could be part of an elaborate satire on intellectual affectation and posturing of theatre-folk. As with this play in general, one is never quite sure. It’s elusive and slippery, and sometimes seems to be laughing at the audience for ever taking it at all seriously.
The title of this play, written by Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco, refers to the two works by Sophocles set in the city of Thebes that tell the story of Oedipus and his patricide. It has been performed in eight different countries, and for this version, the UK debut, director Goldman also provides the translation.
A nine-metre high cage occupies the entirety of the stage, within which, at the opening of the play sits a brooding figure in grey tracksuit, head in hands, and sitting by a basketball. This is a real killer, called Martin, we are told by would-be playwright and narrator T (Trevor White), and the cage door is ostentatiously opened.
Of course, it isn’t really. The Ministry of Justice, apparently, reneged on an earlier promise to allow Martin on stage if surrounded by a cage, and his character will in fact be played by young actor Freddie, who in turn will be played by the real young actor Alex Austin. But don’t worry: the Ministry of Justice has allowed Martin to be present in the audience at every performance, under armed guard naturally. He even gets a listing in the programme.
This is the first act of manipulation in a play which has plenty more to offer in this regard. Although patricide is its ostensible theme, it offers no insight into father-killing at all, or indeed any type of killing. Martin was abused physically and mentally by his terrible father, and his murder, by 21 wounds delivered by a fork, seems entirely understandable and pretty excusable. Indeed, it is very unlikely that an offender with so many mitigating circumstances in his favour would be punished by multiple life sentences at Belmarsh, but we’re asked to suspend disbelief.
What the play does, however, provide is an unsettling and often very funny commentary on the half-lies introduced into story-telling when the subject of the script is a real person. Playwright T, given a commission by the Arcola to write and perform the story, visits Martin in prison and talks to him on the prison basketball court. Although initially wary, develops a relationship with him that becomes a friendship.
These conversations become the backbone of a script for a play he rehearses with Freddie. But Martin’s words are rarely incorporated verbatim; rather, T massages them to suit the purpose of the narrative and the conventions of the theatre. Martin’s rosary, for example, becomes jasmine in the script because it’s more literary. In fact, the distance between the model and the copy is the reason “art is always better than reality.”
Neither does he lose any opportunity to insert a showy cultural metaphor into the script or, indeed, any conversation with wide-eyed Freddie. While sympathetic to Martin, he’s vain and preening – a perfect example of the theatre establishment in fact.
The boundary between truth and lies, and where art lies between these shifting territories, forms the heart of the play. In course of it, the audience is never quite sure what they are watching. It’s an elaborate conjuring trick.
That trick is performed superbly by the two actors. It’s an exquisitely acted dance and both demonstrate acute feeling for the pace and rhythm of the dialogue. While the play is arguably too long, the control over text that both actors exhibit ensures it never drags.
Alex Austin slips effortlessly between the inarticulate vulnerability of the killer Martin and the eager to please vulnerability of the actor Freddie, while Trevor White’s fluent performance provides the underpinning narrative drive. In less able hands, this play’s flaws would gape open far more clearly.
It is a terribly funny play as well, particularly in the scenes between T the director and Freddie the young actor, still in his third year at RADA. It’s rare, but extremely gratifying, to find a play which so deliciously skewers the pretensions of the theatre business.
T, it turns out, is the same age as the father that Martin killed, while he remains obscure about his own father. He says he loves him, but we don’t believe him. And while there is an obvious father-son subtext to the relationship between T and Martin, there’s a homoerotic subtext as well. What we are watching and what we think we are watching shifts endlessly beneath our feet.
This play has been performed all round the world, and in this version Daniel Goldman has provided local colour and idioms peculiar to the UK. This might have been a mistake, as the soul of the play feels inherently Latin. Basketball behind cages isn’t that common in UK prisons, rosary beads are not often worn by killers and the references to David Beckham and Gareth Bale don’t feel authentic.
I can see why the adaptor wants to make the story closer to home, but it distorts the truth of the original – much like the play itself in fact.
Sometimes the best plays are elliptical. They create murmurs which continue to echo, unanswered, long after a play has ended. One doesn’t have to be always aware of what is going on, or what the play is ‘saying’ for it to be a successful piece of drama.
Thebes Land is not the in category of great unknowable plays, or even close. It’s skilful, manipulative and full of tricks, but not, ultimately, wrestling with the big questions with which it flirts coquettishly. It is, nonetheless, quite unlike anything one has seen before and it is expertly rendered.