There was a moment, during the interval of Thebes Land, in which Alex Austin, shooting hoops alone in the cage surrounded by the audience, missed the basket making the ball instead slam down against the cage, simultaneously as Trevor White, watching as the playwright-character T, was passing behind, so that I wasn’t sure if the ball had hit his face or not. It’s this doubt as to your own perspective that Thebes Land wants you to have throughout, to make you lose your sense of balance.
This re-run of Sergio Blanco’s (Spanish) play, translated and directed by Daniel Goldman as part of this year’s CASA Latin American Theatre Festival, has been sensitively put together – and even altered, in content – to suit “a work of auto-fiction”, as Goldman puts it. The translator’s note attached to the English translation outlines the ways in which the lives of the actors Austin and White were transferred onto the characters of S (T in the English) and Freddie, with Blanco’s blessing, to make it difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. Watching Thebes Land without this knowledge, however, made for an absolutely unique and unsettling experience. Adapting the script into English with a British setting adds further layers of ambiguity to this story of a playwright writing on a real inmate’s crime of patricide, giving Goldman’s production even more levels of meaning to play with.
Thebes Land is most impressive when displaying the ingenuity of this premise, when making you lose track of which level they or we are meant to be on at that point with regards to identities, the function of the cage (always set-piece, but perhaps a legal stipulation?) and to what extent we are viewing something exploitative. The emotion earned as Martin (patricide) and T (playwright) attempt to understand each other comes to mean even more when undermined by T and Freddie, enlisted by T to act as Martin in his play (also portrayed by Austin). In their devising process, shown to us onstage, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Have Nothing’ is played over Martin’s remembrance of his mother, and Freddie and T’s controlling of how his story is relayed to others became something cruel to witness, for me. Blanco and Goldman are aware of this; Thebes Land in this way lays bare the problems of representation we always run up against with art, which theatre can often be best placed to examine.
The screens above the stage displaying the actors as if on CCTV are a wise addition in such a limited space, and allow for one of the best depictions of a vision or ghost I’ve seen in a performance. Of the actors, White in particular is a joy to watch, and rather than Austin’s changes as he signals to us (or misleads us) as to which character he is, it’s more interesting throughout to observe how White as T becomes slower, gentler and wide-eyed, when talking to Martin, or pretending to talk to Freddie as Martin. And not being certain of the difference is much the point.
Thebes Land is playing at the Arcola until October 7.
Photo: Alex Brenner