Oh, Spymonkey: masters of the irreverent, champions of the daft, pioneers of the theatrically unsafe. The intrepid four return to Lyric Hammersmith for the first time since their gloriously anarchical “mis-telling” of Moby Dick; and Oedipussy is, in many ways, everything a dedicated fan has come to expect from them: audacious clowning, a scintillatingly camp soundtrack, general tomfoolery, and this time with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice on directorial duties.
But, for once, the quartet have pulled off the remarkable feat of turning their ecstatic brilliance into something just a little bit – well, bland. Here’s the problem: the Spymonkey style is unreservedly joyful; it’s brash, physical, comical – everything the Oedipus myth is not. And Oedipussy – an attempt to jolly-along the Sophocles original in the style of Casino Royale – is never at ease with itself. With rare exceptions (a streetwise Sphinx, an Oracle that keeps losing its eyes), the subject matter is an uncomfortable fit for clowning around; the Oedipus plot seems less a vehicle for breathless comedy than a weight around the performers’ necks. And as the tragedy unfolds, moments of the myth that you’d expect to have impact are at best awkward and at worst insincere: cue an embarrassing revelation scene, where Oedipus and his mother-wife Jocasta realise the horror of their situation during five long minutes that pack no punch. It really is quite an achievement to make an audience feel unbothered by that scene.
Where the real drama lies, though, is in the moments Grose and the Spymonkey team push the Oedipus plot aside in favour of another tragic figure: the aging clown. Here are four performers in their 40s and 50s, unashamedly joking about their middle-aged-ness while they cavort around the stage pulling off tricks that would leave most 18 year olds out of breath. There’s a bitter, self-aware humour in how these four nappy-clad middle-agers struggle their way through the show with the odd painkiller pit-stop along the way. And as they do, each steps out of character to consider ‘what if’ – what if John Park had followed in his sister’s high-achieving footsteps of consultant psychiatry; what if Aitor Basauri ditched Spymonkey for life as a stand-up comedian; what if Oedipus and Laius hadn’t met at a crossroads.
In these moments, Oedipussy feels like it’s got something to say; a bittersweet musing on wasted lives and the lies we tell ourselves in order to muddle through: that clowning around on a stage for 30 years might not be a waste; that being married to your mum might not be such a big deal really so long as nobody else finds out. And they prove the ultimate, universal brilliance of a myth: that even here in a world of Barbarella and Bond, as far removed from Greek classicalism as you can imagine, we can all find something to make us think that Sophocles wrote this play just for us. But such moments are few and far between; for all its passion, for all the exuberant energy of some of theatre’s finest troopers, Oedipussy is – alas – pretty underwhelming.