Jeff James’s contemporary re-working of Sophocles’s Philoctetes was as aesthetically refreshing as it was pungent (quite literally). With its stark white lighting, electric heater and clinical plastic flooring, the design was analogous to a human-sized vivarium, with Odysseus calculatedly changing the conditions and watching his subjects squirm.
The play centres around Neoptolemus’s (here ‘Neo’) encouraged attempt to lure Philoctetes from the cave in which he has lived ever since he was abandoned by Odysseus and the Greeks, as a result of his acrid, stinking foot. “Things can go wrong for any mortal”, he reminds us, the irony ringing out against the tightly controlled situation we are playing witness to, gently prompting us to question whether this is fate or chance? James’s re-telling sees the seemingly meek and mild Neo courageously challenge the prophecy of the gods and we see the power of the individual quietly triumph just as we’re plunged into the darkness that signifies the end of the play.
Indeed, despite its raw and sickly aesthetic – the whole thing was played out in a mess of treacle, which was slowly spread across the stage by Philoctetes – this play was tender, and its characters humane. The first experience of Daniel Millar’s Philoctetes was a Frankenstein’s monster-like awakening, and his bold physicality embraced an extreme pain, whilst retaining a sense of the character’s subtle humour. The Greek tragedy we are accustomed to characteristically spares us the aesthetic and instead uses dialogue to describe the more gruesome moments; the carnage happens behind closed doors. Stink Foot breaks this rule and creates an in-yer-face-like experience, but instead of aiming for the ‘real’, James and his team work skilfully with the audience’s imagination, turning sweet treacle into grotesque gore and decaying flesh before our very eyes.
Joshua Miles is a caring, courageous and endearingly understated Neo, whose relationship with Millar’s Phlioctetes is tender and believable. Rosie Thompson’s Odysseus treads powerfully, if at times a little distractingly, around the scenes between the two men, presenting an exhausting and desperate attempt to retain all consuming power in a world where free will has been robbed from him. It was, of course, great to see Odysseus played skilfully by Thompson, another welcome reminder of just how successfully classic male roles can be taken on by women.
The constant moving, taking apart and putting back together of Alex Lowde’s design and Hansjorg Schmidt’s lighting by Odysseus made the play a lot like a piece of live installation art and meant there was always something to keep an audience engaged: shadows were projected on the back wall enlarging the mortal characters to god-like stature only to shrink them back to size. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that parts of the set were a little underused at times and the constant moving of lights often distracted from dialogue. The costumes certainly provided both an entertaining contemporary twist and, as a friend pointed out, an astute re-location of mythology: Nike was, of course, the goddess of victory.
James’s writing and direction achieves a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy and Stink Foot is a bold and experimental look at a classic text, though be warned – it is sure to put you off treacle forever, or at least for the foreseeable future.
Stink Foot is playing at The Yard Theatre until 13 December. For more information and tickets, see The Yard Theatre website.