23 December 2016

Thebes Land at Arcola Theatre was extraordinary


I'll start at the end.

Below a picture that Arcola Theatre posted on Twitter at the end of the final performance of Thebes Land. I'm one of the people standing, clapping and cheering on the far side of the cage.

I have never taken part in such a quick, enthusiastic and universal ovation. Only a very special play could do that, and Thebes Land was.

Thebes Land was a play about the making of a play. There were only two players, both pictured, Trevor White played the author and Alex Austin played both the subject and the actor playing the subject.

The author wanted to do a play about patricide and so had several meetings with a convict and these were always held in a locked basketball court. Because of that, so were the rehearsals for the play.

The play consisted of four distinct elements; firstly the author came out of the cage regularly to tell us some of the story about how the play was put together (such as the permissions that he had to get from the MoJ to see the prisoner,) secondly we saw some of the the meetings between the two men in prison and then, thirdly, the rehearsal sessions where the author and actor adapted those meetings into scenes from the play. These scenes were based on the meetings but were not exact copies with the author looking to tease specific ideas from a scene and the actor helping him to do so. Finally, the author looked to other references to patricide and a large part of this was the Oedipus legend, which is where the title of his play came from.

The intelligent structure of the play was a large part of the success of the play, as was its skillful delivery. The production was stuffed with clever theatre craft but kept well short of the line where craft become gimmick. I'll give just one simple example, just before the intermission the author read out a list of basketball terms given to him by the murdered to use in his play; the last one in the list was "half-time". We all clapped immediately because we were in tune with the play and recognised the signal for what it was and appreciated its construction.

Then there were the stories of how one man came to murder his father and how that became a play. Both stories were interesting, well paced and took a few unexpected turns. When the author talked about the murder being in the audience it just seemed right that he would be. There was a play called Thebes Land and I am sure that some of the story about how it came into being was true, including some of the things that the author said about himself, but just how much I have no idea. That blurring between fact and fiction was one of the other things that made the play work and it also made the fiction (if there was any!) believable.

Thebes Land was a superb play in every aspect, and I must mention the excellent performances from Trevor White and Alex Austin again. It was an extraordinary play.

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