It’s not often that a show will tell you, within its script, that you’ll be giving it a good review – but then Thebes Land is no ordinary play. Daniel Goldman’s adaptation of Sergio Blanco’s original text is the Oedipus complex for the 21st century – perhaps not in reality, but certainly in structure. A deeply moving account of how the smallest action can shape our future, told in an infinite number of ways.
In relation to the fourth wall, Thebes Land is Bertolt Brecht, gleefully wielding a sledgehammer. Canadian playwright T (Trevor White) has been devising a production (to play the Arcola no less), featuring his conversations with Martin (Alex Austin), a patricide sentenced to life. Martin hasn’t been granted permission by the Ministry of Defence to appear onstage, so he’s played by Freddie who’s played by Austin. The narrative follows T’s meetings with Martin, alongside the rehearsal process for Thebes Land, keeping the audience guessing as to whether what we’re watching is real or fabricated. It’s the type of work we typically expect from Charlie Kaufman – a multi-layered and meta-theatrical. Blanco and Goldman stuff Thebes Land fit to burst, discussing everything from basketball to Greek myth to Whitney Houston, trying to make everything relate. With so much compounding, this is a production that teeters on the precipice of indulgence.
Mercifully it never falls. Thebes Land boils down to three dynamic relationships, all teasingly coy in their approach. Nothing is given to us, we’re left to read into things like a lovestruck teenager, and boy does it work. The final, blistering image of T hugging Martin reads like a kaleidoscope, fractures of something loving but not yet a whole. Father and Son, Director and Actor, Subject and Documenter, or perhaps equals meeting at a sexual level? The substance at play is fantastic – you could add 100 more flashy techniques to the story and it still wouldn’t collapse. Goldman’s simple staging helps us to focus on the text, and his use of a caged set (literally four walls separating us from the action) is the best analogy he could use. It’s realism meets artistry – the bars distort our view so we cannot completely comprehend what we’re watching.
White is the perfect, flawed artist. Successful in his eloquence, frustrating in his pretension, charming in his appeal but seemingly disturbed by his own past. It takes great skill to have an audience laugh with a character one second, then roll their eyes the next. As Martin, Austin passes the test of having us empathise, whilst still remaining dangerous. You want nothing but the best for this young man, who the world has not been kind to, who has acted on his emotions, and who is being relentlessly punished for it. Props to Austin for Freddie though – we hope Martin is going to have more layers than we initially see, but we unfairly write off Freddie as the jobbing actor. Indeed, Austin effectively drip feeds us more about this infectious young man at every instance, subtly transforming him from modelling clay to his own creative entity.
This isn’t a flawless production. It skimps on real answers to Martin’s situation and, because anything emotional doesn’t really start until the second half, Act 1 feels a bit like you’re being experimented on. It really is a tour de force though, just come with your brain switched on. Thebes Land is as engaging a set-up from when T envisages his project, right up until the rave reviews have come in from press night. In this instance, I’m happy to report life is imitating art.
Thebes Land is playing the Arcola Theatre til December 23.
Photo: Alex Brenner