Natalie York’s production of one of Sophocles’ tragically underperformed plays, Philoctetes, fails to capture most of what makes the original so engaging. The play as Sophocles wrote it is about Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’ son) who have been sent to fetch the injured Philoctetes, left on Lemnos before the start of the Trojan War because he “filled the entire camp with savage and ill-omened cries” and prevented the Greeks from sacrificing. The play is essentially about Neoptomlemus’ struggle whether to obey the Odysseus and deceive Philoctetes or to follow his phusis and do what he thinks is right.
This production sets the ancient drama during the First World War, replaces Philoctetes’ magic bow with some sort of plans for a tank, and does away with the chorus and the character of Heracles. Quite daring you might think, experimental, innovative even. But as the spectator desperately tries not to let his attention wander to the architecture of Corpus’ auditorium or tomorrow’s essay, it becomes clear that daring is the one thing this production is not. This is because York cannot seem to make up her mind about where exactly she wants this play to go. She decides to retain an old-fashioned verse translation and the traditional three actors, but her attempts to modernise this play such as replacing the bow with plans for a tank simply did not work and generally do not contribute anything meaningful to the play. When, for example, Philoctetes is deprived of his plans, one fails to understand why he would address the birds, which he can no longer catch (with his bow). The omission of the chorus seems to stem rather from laziness than aesthetic considerations and makes it hard to understand the crucial character development of Neoptolemus. The elimination of the character of Heracles renders the conclusion of the play incomprehensible. Of course, directors should not shirk from overriding classical dramatic conventions or adapting ancient plays to make them into powerful instruments of artistic expression. Here, however, any original interpretation or even a faithful reworking of Sophocles’ conception is sought in vain.
Even though the actors have little to work with, exceptional acting can often mitigate uninspired directing. However, the actors of Philoctetes fail to imbue the long monologues with any significance, due in part to the excision of the chorus, their main interpretative tool being variation in pace. Odysseus (Joe Rolleston) seesawes between being cunning and simply angry with an unfortunate outbreak à la Colonel Hans Landa. Neoptolemus (Redmond Traynor) is dully one-dimensional and seems not to develop at all, while scenes of Philoctetes’ (Moritz Borrmann) seizures bear an unfortunate resemblance to the closing moments of most Bollywood movies.
All in all, this short, hour-long play neither passes quickly nor leaves us with much that is worth thinking about, except perhaps (intentional?) homo-erotic tension between Traynor and Borrmann (or maybe a love triangle including Rolleston as well?). Not exactly cathartic. As the Michelin might say, not worth a detour.
PHOTO / Jem Lowther