Theatre group has a stab at Greek tragedy

A jealous father, a messed-up son and one mother of a comedy. Entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to the Sphinx herself, Petra Massey, about why it’d be a (Greek) tragedy to miss Spymonkey’s latest show.

FORBIDDEN lust, violent murder, mutilation, nudity, accidental incest; yes Spymonkey are back with their take on the mother of all dysfunctional families; new comedy Oedipussy.

Hang on, comedy?

“It’s pretty full-on, but Oedipus kills his father and doesn’t know it bless him; and it’s quite unfortunate to discover you’ve married your mother and completely and utterly in love with her. There’s comedy in there somewhere,” laughs Petra.

If this sounds all Greek to you, you’re right. Here are the Cliffs Notes.

Laius upsets the gods by seducing young prince Chryssipus. Later king of Thebes and despite the curse of a father-killing, mother-marrying son hanging over his head; Laius and wife Jocasta just can’t help themselves.

Anyone who watches Spartacus will know what they were like.

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Anyway, abandoned at birth, the half-crippled Oedipus is raised by adoptive parents; whom he flees after hearing of his bloody destiny. Unfortunately, the warrior he argues with and then kills on the road is Laius. To make things worse, he unwittingly wins the hand of his own mother when he rids Thebes of the curse of the Sphinx.

Years later, when the land is blighted by a plague caused by these crimes against decency Oedipus vows to avenge Laius’ killer; little knowing the can of worms he’s about to open.

“People have said this is the clearest version of Oedipus they’ve ever seen and the story really makes sense,” adds the regular on BBC shows Hyperdrive and Miranda.

“If you were studying it and wanted the light-hearted view but still really be able to understand the story, this could be great for children.”

Even with Oedipus gouging out his eyes with his mother cum wife’s brooch before wandering the world with only his daughter cum half-sister to guide him?

“I think all our shows are kid-friendly because we take quite taboo issues and make them funny; and it’s such a physical comedy.

“We never set out going ‘we’re going to push boundaries’ or ‘we’re going to shock’. We like to have fun, to entertain, that’s where the crux of our work is,” says Petra, who plays guard one – not guard two, she stresses – assorted townsfolk, the Sphinx and herself in the show.

As Oedipus finds, destiny can be hard to avoid though.

I’m thinking of the two-and-a-bit-years they worked as – what the company liked to call – the self-styled porn clowns in Las Vegas.

“It was a very memorable chapter in all of our lives, individually and as Spymonkey,” she says of their time as the comedy thread of adult burlesque show Zumanity – Another Side of Cirque du Soleil, from 2003-5 at the New York New York Hotel Casino.

To jump from pretty much fringe theatre to a 2,500 seater in Sin City of all places was a massive leap of faith.

“It’s just the four of us and some of the most erotic, beautiful, ladies and men in the world doing the most physical death-defying stunts.

“As an experience it was second to none and we gelled as a company. Cirque wanted us to stay, but we decided we wanted to grow and do our own thing. That was a real moment and we came back to the UK stronger. It wasn’t just the four of us, our director came and Lucy Bradridge.”

A key member of the team, we’ll get to designer Lucy later.

First, though, why pick classic Greek theatre for the no-holds-barred Spymonkey treatment?

Knowing how mischievous they like to be; the idea to tackle Oedipus came from Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, who adapted Carl Grose and the company’s story and is also directing. How it became Oedipussy… well Bond is one of the show’s inspirations.

The tragedy element interested them; so did the chance to do something truly epic.

“It’s four clowns playing Oedipus with so many different characters; I mean that’s just ridiculousness in itself,” laughs Petra.

Part of the show is about Petra and fellow cast members Aitor Basauri, Stephan Kreiss and Toby Park establishing their legacy as the greatest tragic geniuses of their generation in the face of disintegrating knees, dodgy memories and an increasing reliance on anti-inflammatories; the result of hurling themselves around the stage for years for their art.

It’s an aspect all too close to home.

“We’re all pushing our mid-40s and have certain injuries, pain and all those things every 40-year-old gets; but it’s almost heightened because we’re doing an extremely physical two-and-a-half-hour show on top of rehearsals. Because of the passing of time and the theme of time passing with Oedipus we wanted to string that in.”

Petra admits Oedipussy is very different from its normal work; for a number of reasons.

“We’re really following the very thin line of tragedy and comedy and where the comedy becomes tragic and the tragic becomes comedic; it’s a very interesting line to follow, particularly for us because we’re getting on and there’s a time limit I suppose to how much longer we can physically carry off these shows.”

It’s also the first time the company’s worked with a script-writer; Emma’s involvement has resulted in a strong story gluing the comedy together and it’s the shortest period of rehearsal time they’ve had for a devised show; doing it in four-and-a-bit weeks instead of the usual seven.

Fans of Spymonkey’s previous shows, including the much acclaimed Moby Dick at the New Wolsey a few years back, won’t be disappointed. Their usual brand of dark, edgy, physical comedy - described as Monty Python meets the Marx Brothers meets Samuel Beckett – is present and correct.

As well as great music of all sorts – sadly the electro-synth Kraftwerk number, while fantastic, was cut because it was so left-field - expect a very Barbarella, 70s sci-fi, even superhero feel to proceedings.

And back to costume designer Lucy, who’s been with the company from the start and whose credits also include Cirque Du Soleil and The Mighty Boosh.

“When she saw the [very conceptual] set she went ‘I’ve got to add colour, I’ve got to have big extravagant cartoon-style Barbarella costumes’.

“She gives us our gags within the costumes and within the props. If it wasn’t for Lucy this show wouldn’t be as funny as it is because how she sees [things], because she knows us so well now, she can really get the best out of our ageing, decrepit bodies. It’s her aim to show off how aged and decrepit we are and make us look as ridiculous as possible,” laughs Petra.

Oedipussy plays at the New Wolsey Theatre from March 7-10. You must be 14 or over.

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