Hackney Wick is a place of collision, a place where formerly industrial spaces have been radically re-imagined, so it makes a apt backdrop to this re-working of a two and a half thousand year old text. Sophocles’ Philoctetes is a central play in Greek tragedy; a pleasingly bizarre tale and a complex exploration of morality, and fate.
Director and adapter Jeff James and his production team, through some striking aesthetic choices, have created a fairly avant-garde re-imagining of the myth. Alex Lowde’s set design reminds me of Joseph Beuys. The textured yellow sheet metal floor (a permanent feature? I’m not sure) is a curiosity in itself. On it sit bath tubs and buckets full of treacle, two three-bar heaters and some plastic model vultures, making it feel like an unnerving piece of installation art. HansjÃ¶rg Schmidt’s lighting is occasionally baffling (is it depicting the changing times of day and night?) but it is remarkable, and uncomfortably effective when it needs to be. Carefully controlled microphone feedback adds to this sense of unease.
Philoctetes has a bad leg and that is wonderfully, horribly depicted here too. The point about Philoctetes’ affliction is that it is almost worse than you can imagine: it is trench foot of the Gods. Flesh sloughs off him; he oozes, he reeks. His life is one of unbearable pain. Daniel Millar, his leg wrapped in tape and plastic, seeping dark liquid, conveys this pain incredibly well, contorting and bellowing. Yet, despite the darkness of his situation, he also has a naivety that is endearing and there’s humour to his interactions with Joshua Miles’s Neoptolemus, the young man who has been sent to lure him (and his magic bow) away from his island exile and back into battle. Rosie Thomson plays the manipulative Odysseus. She controls the action of the play – often in a literal sense, switching on lights, moving props, flinging treacle.
James’s version of the text is very clever in the way it plays on the difficulties of the original. Odysseus mispronounces ‘Neoptolemus’ as ‘Neopotamus’ during the opening scene, while Philoctetes, frightened after encountering a fellow Greek for the first time in a decade, begins to incoherently exclaim ‘zennnoy. Zennoy? Zennnnnoyy!’ It took me a while to work this one out. He is struggling to find the right word to describe this stranger, and the best one he can find is the Greek ‘xenoi’. ‘Xenoi’ does mean stranger, but it has ambiguities that are nearly impossible to effectively translate. In the original, the ambiguities are important in defining the complex relationship between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus; deploying the word in this subtle way is a very intelligent way of preserving them.
Much of the intrigue in Greek tragedy rests on the problem of interpreting it. In many undergraduate English courses it is the last and most difficult thing you are given to study, as it presents the ultimate hermeneutic challenge: thousands of years of changing culture separate us from it, and yet its myths remain central to our literature. This production is impressively academic, but its intelligent idiosyncrasy will also appeal to newcomers. Radical without being obscure, contemporary without being topical, Stink Foot is an excellent example of how the problems of ancient drama continue to be used in the creation of rich and exciting theatrical experiences.