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FringeReview UK 2017

Thebes Land

Arcola Theatre, London

Genre: Adaptation, Contemporary, Devised, Drama, Experimental, New Writing, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 1


Low Down

A return to the Arcola for this award-winning 2126 play. Sergio Blanco’s is here adapted into English in Daniel Goldman’s translation and direction where Blanco’s text is adapted to Goldman’s experiences mounting the Arcola premiere. Jemima Robinson’s Ministry-prescribed cage inhabits the stage where a writer hopes to interrogate a real Lifer inside; and shimmers to Richard Williamson’s lighting and video design, live and pre-filmed in monochrome or colour, perched above panopticon-style. Till October 7th.


It’s good to welcome the return of this cage. Franco-Uruguayan Sergio Blanco’s Thebes Land drops back into Arcola’s Studio 1 after its acclaimed run in 2016, echoing the welcome re-run of other Arcola productions like Kenny Morgan. It’s a fine policy, given necessarily short runs.


We’re staring straight at Jemima Robinson’s Ministry-prescribed cage where a writer hopes to interrogate a real Lifer inside, for everyone’s safety, about his patricide. Richard Williamson’s lighting and video design, sometimes live, sometimes cunningly pre-filmed in monochrome or colour, perches above in true panopticon-style.


Inevitable parallels with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and two films made of Capote’s encounters with killers on Death Row fade. It’s because Blanco extrapolates real events by personal witness slightly varied, here localised in this English-language in Daniel Goldman’s translation and direction where Blanco’s text is adapted to Goldman’s experiences mounting the Arcola premiere involving Arcola Director and staff, real and ‘false’ though not very false projects, and imaginatively predicted outcomes with the Ministry of Justice. At one point an ASM delivers a one-liner. So fact, faction and fiction are grafted in this English version on the original. Blanco’s writer ‘S’ becomes the ‘T’ of actor Trevor White.


As White fast-talks his jet-setting snappily pretentious persona around the cage like a self-propelling pencil desperate for skin to scratch on, Largatkil-induced Martin Santos skulks inside. Santos isn’t what he seems of course, from the monosyllabic baritonal saw of a voice as ‘T’ White interrogates him gently but uncomprehendingly. T’s father was an international basket-ball player yet T shows no interest in this; till now, when Santos shows more than a talent for it, his one activity knocking the ball into the basket. He’s a natural. What then is T after?


Here’s a man abused by a father he murders, and T essays all sorts of literary cages tighter than the one he’s permitted to share here. He seeks to unravel the inevitable Oedipal myth he explains to Santos whose incredulous take on Jocasta rebuts any sense that the mother he was close to fits T’s suggestion.


By now the audience as one to my right noted visibly relaxes, at Alex Austin’s natural London voice, Freddie the actor chosen to play Santos. Santos has been denied leave to appear in his cage. Freddie asks questions. Is inadvertent patricide really intend patricide? And another late on, about killing a father if the father abrogated his role by becoming a sadistic abuser. Austin’s morphing between the two starts to oscillate towards the end so in one scene he assumes both personae.


More than the exploration for Santos’ motivation, which seems straightforward, is the very construct we place on people. Martin means ‘war’, Freddie derives from ‘peace’ but making Martin a war Saint, St Martin in fact chimes with his visions, epilepsy-induced, controlled now but a late-onset element thrusting T’s constructs to interrogate all sorts of motives, stuffing Freddie with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (another father righteously killed) and Martin with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, a kind of reverse-engineering of Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Most of all, it deconstructs our very notions of guilt, patricide, glib formulae. ‘Some things aren’t easy to tell’ Martin says with slab-like precision. Deaths and tellings inform the layers and rituals involved. T’s cheerful eureka to Freddie about his title ‘Thebes Land’ is shot through with appropriation.


There’s more than devised theatre in this, though such experiments as those by Tim Crouch suggest themselves. This is differently controlled. Musically – and there’s music all round here – it’s not so much John Cage and chance composition as Lutoslawski’s aleatory disciplines: one eighth newly-devised, the rest crystalline. And if that sounds pretentious you’ve not met T.


What we’re finally confronted with though isn’t the stripping-away of T to a pretentious husk but something far more deeply engaged, far more disturbed but emphatically not unredeemable or even uncompassionate. A series of gestures at the end show how T’s complicity and being shaped have rendered him susceptible to something more engaged than Stockholm Syndrome. And what he decides to do wreaks a change in Martin.


It’s been happening all through. What is the Martin explaining ‘it’s a matter of calculating distance and velocity’ doing by the Third Quarter of this encounter? His very language shifts.


No praise could be high enough for Austin’s swerve-ball shift of registration, his inhabiting of Martin whose vocally-graunched persona embodies a flinching menace at times, a trigger T’s more than wary of. White’s slowly melting Canadian glacier shifts too: his increasingly easy avuncularity with Freddie warms up. More, he’s physically drawn in by fear and duty, outrage and affection by Martin and his plight. His verbally buzzy part is understated but T’s transformation is as consummately wrought.


Before they part however, there’s that question of a hug. The father-termed ‘whore’ Martin and T confess edgily to feelings more complex than father/son, friends, lovers even. It’s where this will go, what both Martin and T are left with, that begins to shine out of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work.