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Another week, another studio theatre over a pub.  This time the Finborough Theatre in the wilds of Earl's Court.

I didn't see the original production of Trackers at the National in 1990, but I'm almost glad that I didn't as this production was excellent and I was very happy to see it with no preconceptions.  It's premise is...complex.  I was trying to explain it to my Italian class and wondering exactly how much of it was coming over in my halting Italian. 

In English, however, we start with two Oxford archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt (these were real people) excavating papyri from the great rubbish tip of Oxyrhynchus, in Egypt.  They are looking for Greek tragedy (wouldn't you?) but all they find are petitions to the administrative authorities ("please don't let me be dispossessed, or thrown out of my house").  The local fellaheen are happy to be paid for the work, but are equally happy to burn papyri for fuel as to collect them up for their employers.  The archaeologists are sniffy about this.

Inspired by Apollo, Grenfell sets off in search of Sophocles's satyr play, the Trackers.  Satyr plays were gross farces, performed at the end of a playwright's three tragedies at the Athenian festival.  Satyrs were traditionally drunken, cowardly, priapic figures who followed the God Dionysus around, carousing and chasing maenads.  Here the workmen transform into hairy-legged, clog-dancing satyrs with huge phalluses, who track down the lost cattle of Apollo.  The effect of the clog dancing on the small stage is extraordinary, muscular and rhythmic, giving the satyrs an immediate physical presence and a gravity that belies their bouncing phalluses.

Unfortunately Apollo's cattle have been killed and flayed by the newborn Hermes, and their remains used to construct the lyre which he has just invented.  Apollo smoothly takes possession of they lyre, pays off the satyrs in gold, and wanders off to invent poetry.  Meanwhile the satyrs, excluded from high art, use the gold to buy drink and carry on carousing.

The final scene takes places in the present day, where the satyrs are now dispossessed working men sitting outside the National Theatre and drinking.  They burn the scenery for warmth (this was sheets with Greek characters written all over them, representing the papyri), turn on each other and beg the audience pathetically to send them back to Ancient Greece.  As we stare non-plussed, they decide that we can't help as we don't understand Ancient Greek, and resume drinking.

I just thought the play was so clever, eviscerating our pretensions to understand high art while ignoring the poor and the dispossessed, dramatising the exclusion of the working classes from art, turning the spotlight on our (all right, my) reverence for Ancient Greek texts and asking why we fetishise them.  The play itself  is written in rhyming verse, an astonishing choice for a modern playwright, but it works to bind the disparate parts of the text together.

Anyway, I thought it was terrific, comic and tragic in turn.  5 stars. 
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