The story of Icarus in its conventional form offers what one might consider an odd lesson for children: don’t try too hard; don’t go too high; don’t take risks. I’ve never been convinced by its status as a parable for ambition. If given the chance to fly, as the mythological Icarus is, who wouldn’t want to see how far they could go? The Unicorn, of course, has no such cautious messages to offer to its young patrons, particularly not in a production adapted by newly-former artistic director Purni Morell. In this Icarus, the titular character—the wax-winged boy of Greek mythology, son of a genius inventor, the boy who flies too close to the sun—is not a cautionary tale. Or rather, if there is caution in writer Katrin Lange’s play, it’s not fear of people like Icarus.
Icarus’s father has vanished to Crete, where he has—Icarus learns—been conscripted by the powerful King Minos to build (as in the myth) a labyrinth to contain a terrible monster. But that’s not what we should be afraid of, either.
Through this simple story, sprinkled with opportunities for light audience response that were eagerly seized by the attending school groups, runs a subversive streak, jabbing pointedly at contemporary issues. Icarus’s father Daedalus, in his high-vis vest and gold construction boots, travels abroad to find work, to send money back home to his family—“Do you think I’ve enjoyed being all alone in a foreign country?” he asks his son when Icarus rebukes him for his absence. A natural disaster threatens the country, but those in power refuse to let the truth be spread, mocking and suppressing those who would, in their words, just spread panic amongst the people. A tyrannical Minos cares only for retaining his power, not for how that power is exercised.
Slight disappointment comes with the female characters, particularly in contrast to the central relationship between father and son, anchored by Selva Rasalingam’s warm and weary affection as the master builder Daedalus. Arinder Sadhra as Icarus’s mother is given no time or space to display such depths—she’s just your bog-standard mourning mum; knitting, Penelope style, jumpers destined to be unraveled. Rayxia Ojo’s Ariadne is deprived of her mythological role of finding a way to survive the labyrinth, instead relying on Icarus to solve problems on her behalf and to chivvy her into action. For a children’s show in particular, it’s unfortunate that the girls don’t get their fair share of the surprising power of telling the truth; the mothers aren’t as nuanced and humanised as their husbands.
Though Marshall Defender Nyanhete’s Icarus appears to be a teenager, the character’s frank moral code is perfectly calibrated to appeal to the childhood space before real teenage cynicism, when one has firmly begun to question what they’re told, but still believes deep down that things are, should be, can be fair. Though the play’s ending is not without a sense of loss, it ultimately upholds the power of this worldview. Not don’t fly too high, but rather, things come out right as long as you try.
Icarus is on at the Unicorn Theatre until 10th March. More info here.