Curve, Leicester, Tuesday 27th March, 2012
Sophocles’s tragedy, Oedipus Rex, is one of the greatest works of Drama ever written, but don’t go to a Spymonkey show if it’s tragedy you’re after. Spymonkey is an irreverent company producing some of the most entertaining theatre touring the country today.
The first half is all back story. A crash course in the events that lead up to the action of Sophocles’s play. Narrated by a caryatid, the story of the curse of the house of Laius is played out to hilarious effect through judicious use of brightly coloured wigs and physical comedy. There is a daftness to Spymonkey that calls to mind the sketches of Morecambe & Wise, the surrealism of Reeves & Mortimer and the energy of the Keystone Cops. The pace never lets up but none of the action, the sight gags, the slapstick, ever feels laboured. The characterisations are one-dimensional cartoons – this is theatrical shorthand, a short cut to the laughs. Above all, comedy comes from the sheer theatricality of it all. The set – as versatile as the cast – provides a backdrop but is also incorporated into the silliness. It is almost a fifth member of the troupe.
The second half is, in terms of structure, more recognisably Sophoclean, but where, back in his day the action would be broken up by choric interludes, here we have confessional monologues by cast members, dropping out of character to complain about their ailments, the way they are treated by the others, or to reveal their plans to escape to pastures new as soon as this tour is over. These little moments of darkness are also very funny but they bring to mind the idea that this is not just a knockabout cartoon we’re enjoying, just as the original tragedy is not about distant and lofty figures of mythology. And so another level is added to the performance, along with the ridiculous several-laughs-a-minute style, and the Brechtian moments that puncture and undermine the ongoing show: there is a kind of meta-drama going on with versions of the actors and their personal issues. The main thing though is that all of it is very, very funny in one way or another. I wonder if I can ever go back to the Sophocles without being reminded of Spymonkey’s antics.
Toby Park, managing director of the company and composer, leads as spokesman and narrator. As blind seer Tiresias he suffers ridicule and an extreme form of torture before treating us to a song very much in the early Bowie style, complete with glam rock outfit. Aitor Basauri provides a range of supernumerary characters including Lucky and Plucky a pair of hirsute shepherds, crucial to the plot. But it is as murdered King Laius, a pederast and unicyclist in a blue teddy boy wig that he comes to the fore. As doomed Oedipus, German actor Stephan Kreiss is a force of nature, tearing around the stage, snapping out his lines and all with a bad back and a lunchbox full of painkillers. The best stage actress in Britain (her words not mine) Petra Massey plays Queen Jocasta like a cross between Cleopatra and a character from Battle of the Planets. It is a bizarre design choice but not at all out of place. She also portrays the Sphinx in two equally hilarious versions and her suicide as Jocasta is a coup de theatre that epitomises the production’s inventive and hilarious approach. I fear I am overusing the word ‘hilarious’ but honestly, it‘s the most apt word in the thesaurus to describe this joyous production.
It culminates in a hanging and a blinding, an overblown display using a lot of red ribbon – a device often used by director Emma Rice with her own excellent company, Kneehigh. Even with its script by another Kneehigh stalwart, Carl Grose, this is still unmistakably a Spymonkey show.
The tour continues well into May. I can’t wait to see it again.