Delphi, Texas @ Pleasance Theatre, London

cast list
David Matthews
Jacqueline Bolton
John Matthews
Zachary Dunbar
Alexa Reid

directed by
Zachary Dunbar
This is both a new theatrical experience (I do not say play – a word that conjures format and norm – it is inadequate to describe Delphi, Texas, though this is a work of considerable formality, predicated by its Greek original) of remarkable invention – indeed, genius – and a dramatic production of great integrity, with outstanding acting.

Zachary Dunbar (writer, director, producer and cast member) is a talented concert pianist who has gone off the staid and secure rails of career success and has instead struck out in new directions – not for the first time. Never able to shed his American skin (he would have been at home in the heady ’60s, but he understands that the idealism of that era is still sorely needed today – and not just in America), in his theatrical works he has explored themes and attitudes from the past that throw light on today’s American imperium.

Delphi, Texas roots the Oedipus myth, as related by Sophocles, in the Bible-bashing Texas of George W. Bush, with an overlay of Waco-siege perverse unpredictability and a liberal lashing of behavioural psychology. The cast consists of cattle – a comment on the current American administration? – and the imagery derives largely from the experience of the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease among cattle in Britain and its terrible consequences just a few years ago. The richness of the layers of reference and of meaning is at times overwhelming. Moreover, this is an experience in which the grave-diggers do not have a scene of their own but pop up, tragicomically at odd moments, to draw a smile, often an ironic, a conspiratorial smile. Shakespeare would have approved.

Inspired by a sermon delivered to the 1988 Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Texas, an influential sermon that focused on America’s bigoted claim to godly foundation rather than to her sacred guardianship of the values of liberty, equality, tolerance and brotherhood, Zac has the tape of the offensive sermon played over and over again as the audience enter; and it pops up again from time to time, broadcast seemingly from a radio lashed to the rafters – out of reach, you can’t elude it: there is somebody out there that wants to put you down if you don’t accept his predestinarian lies, and he has control of the radio.

Phew! This is moving stuff – and I am going back to see it again tomorrow. It is so complex a text that a single viewing will not suffice, save for those whom it embarrasses by exposing their prejudices.

The acting is about as good as it can get – on any stage! – think West End. There are only five characters. Big Hoss/Oedipus (David Matthews) has the hardest part; he produced a gradual (you didn’t know it at the time) but growing crescendo of emotional intensity. Good Sister Cow (Jacqueline Bolton) and Mama Cow (Alexa Reid) were similarly slow burners: when their turn to shine came they were stunning. Their animal bumps and grinds and noises were affectingly convincing. The star of the show, from his fifteen-minute pre-show display (a steer hanging by its neck ready for slaughter?), through to his striking soliloquys – and the duet with Good Sister Cow running her hands over his body in a display of sensuality – was Queer Steer (John Matthews). For the audience the only question was which was more enticing, his pre-lapsarian eyes or his abs?

The set is basic and highly serviceable. The costumes are highly apposite. The lighting, by David Hawkins, is – for this small space – quite extraordinary and enhances the production enormously. This is a delightful theatre – the Pleasance in Islington – with two performance spaces. The staff are all friendly and accommodating. A rich experience. Thanks to the fertile imagination and fecund elaboration of Zachary Dunbar (Tiresias!)

Go to see this wherever it transfers to, if you care about Western Civilisation.

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