Jimmy Walters: The Trackers Of Oxyrhyncus
By Caro Moses | Published on Tuesday 27 December 2016
‘The Trackers Of Oxyrhyncus’, written by acclaimed playwright Tony Harrison, was intended only to have a one off performance in Delphi back in 1988, though it later went on to be produced at the National Theatre.
This month it returns to the London stage with a run at the Finborough Theatre, 27 years after its last performance in London. To find out more about the piece, I spoke to the show’s director, Jimmy Walters.
CM: Can you start by telling us what The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus is about – what happens in the play?
JW: The play crosses three periods. It starts in 1907 on an excavation site in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Two archaeologists called Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt were sent by Oxford University to uncover lost fragments of poetry and plays. The find a satyr play and become part of the story they have discovered. We then enter the world of 5th Century Ancient Greece and in the story we meet satyrs, mountain nymphs and Gods. We then enter the world of contemporary London which cannot really be explained why until you see it.
CM: The setting – an archaeological site – is a pretty famous one! How much basis in truth is there? Are the archaeologist characters based on real people?
JW: Yes they are. Grenfell and Hunt were real life figures and Grenfell actually suffered from mental health problems and heard voices so this lends itself well to him becoming possessed by Apollo and becoming part of the story.
CM: What themes does the play focus on? For those who don’t know, can you tell us about the Satyr play it’s based around, and also explain what a satyr play is?
JW: The play deals with division in society, and with where we are politically today this feels very apt. A nation divided and a group of people feeling left behind is something no one on either side of the political fence can really disagree on. It deals with class, the elite and that history isn’t chronological but repetitive.
The satyr play we enter in the story is called ‘Ichneutae’. It deals with the Lord Apollo ordering a group of satyrs to find his herd of cows. A satyr play is a tragicomedy. In the theatre of Dionysus you would have three tragedies followed by a satyr play designed to lighten the mood. They are half man/half goat creatures with big penises who like to revel in the woods, drink and are a bit crazy.
CM: The play has only been staged a few times – why is this? And why is it being revived now?
JW: It was last seen in London 27 years ago and when I met Tony Harrison before he offered us the rights we felt it was the right time to bring it back. It hasn’t been staged for 20 years and when the play was last seen in London the country felt very divided. I don’t think we’ve had really anything closer to that than right now.
CM: How did you get involved with the project?
JW: We had just been at the Finborough with ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’ by John Osborne and struck up a very good relationship with John’s agent Gordon. He offered us some Tony Harrison books and I fell in love with this play. Neil McPherson at the Finborough also really wanted to do it so we decided to go for it.
CM: What made you want to direct it? What appealed to you about it?
JW: It was outside of my comfort zone. It felt hugely topical. It also feels like we’re telling this story to fresh eyes. I was two years old when this was last staged in London so it’s a great play to relay on to the younger generation.
CM: How did you begin your career in directing? Was it something you always aspired to?
JW: I started as an actor originally but when I was at drama school I suddenly thought maybe directing was more my thing. I remember playing Uncle Vanya alongside another actor sharing the role which should have been really competitive, especially as we were in our final year trying to get agents, but I remember he was having trouble with a scene and I took him aside to work on it.
I suddenly realised I was getting more satisfaction from him growing and getting better than I was with my own work. After a few evening talks I went to and getting inspired I walked in one day and decided I was going to go into it. I made the decision before I graduated and have just been really lucky ever since.
CM: What have been your highlights? What would you like to do more of?
JW: I think where I’m at in my career I still have so much to learn and you never stop learning so I don’t think I’d like to do more of the same any time soon. Just keep testing myself and being outside of my comfort zone. I loved doing ‘A Subject of Scandal and Concern’ recently so to revisit John Osborne would be up there but perhaps with a different style of play. He’s such an interesting man.
CM: Where do you see yourself headed in the future? Any plans to diversify, or any unfulfilled ambitions…?
JW: I’d love to carry on doing this and eventually move into film. Right now I’d feel like a fraud on a film set though so I need to understand that world first.
CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
JW: A one man show that is very exciting. I can’t say anything about that yet as we are just getting it off the ground, but it’s an amazing script.
‘The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus’ is on at Finborough Theatre from 3-28 Jan. See this page here for details.
Photo: Robert Boulton