Thebes Land, Arcola, review: ‘Tough subject matter is surprisingly funny and impressively humane’

PUBLISHED: 18:03 13 September 2017 | UPDATED: 18:03 13 September 2017

Thebes Land at the Arcola. Picture: Alex Brenner

Thebes Land at the Arcola. Picture: Alex Brenner

(c) Alex Brenner

Winner of the 2016 OffWestEnd best production award, Daniel Goldman’s taut revival stirs up age-old Freudian theories with a startling take on the limitations of creative license.

Can we ever comprehend what drives a son to kill his father?

In Franco-Uruguayan Sergio Blanco’s morbidly compelling Thebes Land, it’s “the incomprehensible territory” of latent violence within us – a theory posited by his alter ego, a pseudo-intellectual writer-director who sets out to interview a young man imprisoned for patricide in Belmarsh.

Winner of the 2016 OffWestEnd best production award, Daniel Goldman’s taut revival stirs up age-old Freudian theories with a startling take on the limitations of creative license.

The whole play is staged inside a caged basketball-court set designed by Jemima Robinson. Ironically, the claustrophobic space proffers some escape for prisoner Martin (Alex Austin) who attempts to order his frustrations according to the rules of the game.

It’s also where Martin meets playwright S (Trevor White) for his informal interviews. But devising a play about an uneducated, abused patricide was never going to be straightforward and Blanco’s cat-and-mouse structure works to peel back layers of the characters as they struggle to find common ground, while simultaneously challenging our perceptions of the creative process.

When S breaks the news that Martin cannot appear in the production for legal reasons and in steps Martin’s stage incarnation, a bright eyed and bushy-tailed aspiring actor Freddie (also brilliantly played by Austin), the gross inadequacies of documenting trauma are expertly satirised. Truth becomes impossibly slippery.

Past scenes cut into the present and alternative versions of the future jostle with reality: what was actually said when Martin gave S his beloved mother’s rosary? How much does Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” feature in the play once it’s written? As the questions mount, what the two men represent for one another also keeps shifting: who is really the mentor here, and is S a father figure or potential lover?

The meta-theatrical game-playing at times becomes a tad indulgent. And at two and a half hours, the play could do with some trimming. But the performances are mesmerising and Goldman is to be applauded for translating the play and showcasing it to a UK audience.

Despite the tough subject matter, it’s surprisingly funny and impressively humane.

4/5 stars

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