Old drama for new times

It has long been this reviewer’s (humble) opinion that Greek tragedy should have a far greater cultural and educational role to play in both primary and secondary schools. The expanse of the genre is so great and its themes so relevant that this is a waste of a huge, valuable and beautiful resource. So The Unicorn Theatre’s Greeks season, compromising of two adaptations taken from Sophocles, performed with a rep cast and aimed at school children, is a wish devoutly consummated.

The first play is taken from Philoctetes, renamed The Man with the Disturbingly Smelly Foot and is aimed at ages 7-10. The choice is a daring and original one of a long forgotten play (I cannot recall having seen a production) but also a wise one: it lacks any of the disturbing material found in many tragedies, while its themes of honour, the nature of greatness and morality are universal and can easily be adapted for young minds.

The adaptation, although free, bases itself very heavily on the original structurally but adds a comic element both in the acting and the script itself. There is some canny direction too by Ellen McDougall who subtly infuses the production with brilliant lighting and musical atmospherics. Odysseus (Alexis Rodney) and Neoptolemus (Alex Austin) become the prologue, setting the scene with a mixture of wit and sense of pace: it is nine years since the beginning of the Trojan War, Achilles the great hero (and Neoptolemus’ father) is dead, victory is not in sight so they have come to Lemnos to retrieve the magic bow and arrow of Philoctetes, whom Odysseus tricked into being abandoned on the island due to his disturbingly smelly (and eponymous) foot. Rodney plays the nasty Odysseus (Subject for future discussion: why does the protagonist of the Odyssey get such a bad rap in tragedy?) with near conviction, while Austin is engaging, if at times hesitant, as the neophyte Greek warrior.

The play is given some relief by the chorus of two seashells played by Kanga Tanikye-Buah and Mercy Ojelade, an enchanting and delightful duo of Cute and Not So Cute. Between them they help to draw out the play’s themes of the nature of friendship and heroism. They are just about to walk away with the play when Mark Monero’s Philoctetes makes his anticipated entrance. Monero puts in a bravura performance as the injured (in both senses) soldier: entirely convincing, perfectly melancholic and mixing threatening with a gentle humour. As Neoptolemus’ betrayal is revealed there is a surge of poignancy to the production which serves it well.

Ok, some of the jokes were a trifle too hammy and did not quite work  and it would have been nice to have seen some better referencing to Ancient Greece but there is some great choreography, memorable scenes and a great script (by Nancy Harris) which makes for an enjoyable, witty and intelligent experience.

The second production is based upon the Antigone and aimed at an older audience. With its great themes Antigone is an obvious but sound choice and is adapted by Ryan Craig as How To Think The Unthinkable.  Given the nature of the play it is a curious title but promises to capture “the passion, danger and moral deadlock” of what is arguably one of the greatest plays of the Classical era. In terms of form this play is far looser than Harris’ number: apart from Ojelade’s brief outing as a city elder the chorus is dispensed with and Austin, Monero and Rodney are given the characters Tom, Roy and Bo, three soldiers enlisted to guard the body of unburied body of Polyneices. It is upon the on-stage discovery of his burial against the orders of the new king Creon that the drama starts.

Alas, their partly comic role is misconceived. Despite their obvious talents as actors, the humour here misplaced and jarring. Rather than complement the raw tenderness of the drama it distracts from it. The entrance of Creon at a press conference (an idea I have seen done in many productions) to proclaim the start of his rule does little to lend the production the gravitas it needs. The military costumes of the Theban leadership (Creon and Haemon) look like uniforms Mussolini would have rejected as too camp and the clumsy humour rankles; moreover Neil Sheffield’s performance as Creon lacks nuance and direction, verging onto the unfortunately absurd. The overplayed comedy might indicate an uncertainty in the quality and appeal of the original material. It is rather as if the curators of the Louvre were to draw devil horns and a moustache on the Mona Lisa to attract more visitors. Of greater concern, structurally the play meanders too much with far too many unnecessary scenes.  The lack of a chorus means that the play’s themes are sometimes treated as additional factors rather than a golden thread which weaves throughout the play.

Yet for all its faults, it would be a mistake to write this production off – and not just for the nobility of its purpose.  The lighting and the music adds drama to the scenes and the production values are generally strong. Early on in the play two strong performances emerge: the scenes between Antigone (Tanikye-Buah) and Ismene (Ojelade) are well written and strongly acted, bringing out the familial and intense nature of the drama. Tanikye-Buah is a particularly brilliant Antigone, bursting with passion and moral in a compelling and charismatic performance. It is a shame the nature of the adaptation means we do not see more of her but this duo alone make this a production worth watching. There are other worthy performances as well. Edward Franklin as Haemon makes good after an uncertain start as Antigone’s betrothed and Creon’s son. Moreover the final scene between Eurydice, Creon and Bo is brilliantly played. Rodney, in a messenger role reporting the deaths of Antigone and then Haemon, at last shakes off his comic persona while Sheffield moves from absurd to frailly human; despite lacking the Sophoclean moral ambiguity together they create a scene that drives away sentimentality and creates a true sense of pathos.

It has oft been said by reviewers that it is better to try and not quite hit the mark than not to try at all. This production perhaps proves that wise diction: imperfect but worth watching and, at times, stirring and exciting.

Hit and miss, as they say.  Perhaps they just lacked Philoctetes’ magic bow and arrow.

More details of The Unicorn Theatre Greeks season can be found at www.unicorntheatre.com