The playwright T (Trevor White) begins the show illuminated by bare fluorescent light explaining his aims for this play: ‘My interest from the start was to explore patricide in as non-performative a way as possible, to avoid fiction, to create a piece of documentary theatre, that was real in every way’.
Thebes Land, however real, is nothing if not performative. A three-metre high metal cage sits centrestage, complete with a basketball net and cameras surrounding it. Overhanging are screens used to illustrate evidence. Martin is inside the cage, holding a basketball. Except it’s not really Martin. Due to safety restrictions set out by the Ministry of Justice, an actor, Freddie (Alex Austin), is required to play Martin. Martin is now in the audience, with guards around him.
T goes on to retell the story of his encounters with Martin, who was convicted of stabbing his father 21 times with a fork. The structure of the play mimics a basketball game, with four quarters, half-time, and overtime. Interspersed throughout are also scenes between Freddie and T, as they work to create the play. Most of the scenes with Martin and T, or T and Freddie, are reenactments of previous encounters. But there’s also some slippage between fact and fiction: Martin as T mentions his very real performance in On the Record at the Arcola a few years ago. And so Blanco and by extension Goldman create a highly layered narrative that is anything but caged.
White and Austin are masterful at moving through the multi-dimensional text. Austin’s transitions between Martin and Freddie are all body language, hunching his shoulders and darting his eyes. Both actors establish fully nuanced and complex relationships: interviewer-interviewee, teacher-student, playwright-actor. And the understated homoerotic subtext is beautifully laced throughout. The production itself does well to perpetuate the idea of the ‘non-performative’, with minimal and long-sequence light changes merely hinting at its dramatic flair.
But with a name inspired by the Oedipus myth, Thebes Land is certainly dramatic, and roots itself in concepts of tragedy, myth and presence. A debate throughout the play revolves around whether Oedipus could be called a true patricide, given that he was unaware that Laius was his father at the time of the murder. As Martin moves further away from the cage, both literally and figuratively, his identity as a patricide moves closer into the spotlight.
And suddenly the myth of Martin, or of Oedipus, becomes more present than any real version of Martin could be. Intertwined with Whitney Houston lyrics, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, images and allusions are added to evoke meaning in Martin’s story. Highly cerebral and inventive, this is storytelling about storytelling, about mythmaking. The space between fact and fiction becomes thinner, pressed together through enactment. Of course, what you’re watching has also already been written, and the current performance is just another iteration.
Thebes Land is an exceptional exploration of performance itself. Exhilarating, moving, and slick, the piece outgrows its theatrical space and defines it. A real highlight of this year’s theatre.
Thebes Land is on at the Arcola until 23rd December 2016. Click here for more details.