In the first part of Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Victorian archaeologist Grenfell struts and frets around a group of silent Egyptians sifting through scraps of papyrus. He maniacally monologues on his quest to find Sophocles’ lost plays and works himself into such a frenzy that he begins to hallucinate. This triggers an inexplicable leap to ancient Greece where a satyr play is acted out and cloth phalluses abound, then another transition to a modern day street populated by homeless men.
Though there is some thematic consistency, the three stories are otherwise unrelated by plot and style. What initially appears to be a play-within-a-play turns out to be a disjointed and disappointing triptych, much like the fragments of papyrus that litter the stage.
Even the language structure is inconsistent – Grenfell and his colleague speak in rhyming couplets, but the other scenes are in prose. The dialogue is repetitive and full of speeches, often slowing down the action to a crawl. Harrison’s script has plenty of ideas, but little follow-through. Each extended scene would have more power as a stand-alone play if developed further. As is, the disconnect between the three muddles his critique of imperialism, the British class system and contemporary poverty.
The commentary on these issues is vague and stunted despite good intentions. Another issue is an opening line where Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) berates a hired local for not understanding his English and only speaking Arabic. The cast has a mix of complexions, but the actor who receives this tirade of abuse is blond. There are also eight men to one woman, who appears only briefly. This production is certainly not one that ticks diversity boxes.
Though the performances are fine, the script celebrates the language of poetry and there is some important commentary on modern life, Harrison’s play largely seems like an exercise in self-indulgence of half-formed ideas. A searing political play this is not, despite its attempts to show societal flaws transcending time and place.
The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus runs through 28 January.
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