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Greek Tragedy On Acid

19 March 2012

Spymonkey are known for their anarchic shows packed with physical comedy and clowning. Their latest production, Oedipussy, is a riotous reinvention of the Greek’s most famous tragedy, packed with slapstick comedy and live music. Toby Park, performer and co-founder of the company, spoke to London Calling's Will Gore ahead of the show’s arrival at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

How do you turn a Greek Tragedy in Pythonesque comedy? The physical theatre company Spymonkey tell us how their very British take on tragedy comes alive on stage. And what it's like to be compared to Monty Python, The Marx Brothers and Samuel Beckett!

How would you sum up Oedipussy?
Aitor [Bausauri, one of Park’s fellow Spy Monkeys] put it very well when he said it’s Greek tragedy on acid. The exciting bits in Greek tragedy often happen off stage and characters come on to tell you about them. We have more fun actually showing these things. Sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s quite shocking and bizarre.
 
How did the show come about?
We thought about doing a Greek tragedy a while ago when we first spoke to Emma Rice, from Kneehigh Theatre, about directing one of our shows. The two of them together felt like a good fit.
 
Despite the fact that Spymonkey are known for clowning around, was it important to embrace the tragic elements of the story?
We wanted to stay truthful to the story but tell it in our own particular way, with our anarchic flights of fancy. By staying close to the story, and the fantastic ending, the audience end up being really quite moved. We also wanted to look at our own personal tragedies, so there is stuff about how we have aged, are in our mid-40s and have been around the block a bit. As clowns we’ve spent twenty years hurling ourselves around because it seemed like a good idea. There is a cost to that which we look at in Oedipussy - Stephan Kreiss, the German member of the company, talks about having to take anti-inflammatories to get through it, while I talk about coming from a high-achieving family but being stuck with this bunch of idiots!
 
Are these revelatory moments based on reality?
Yes! Horrendous, brutal reality. It’s beautifully candid, I’d say.
 
Emma Rice is one of the many directors you’ve worked with – is it important to collaborate with people from outside the company?
We worked for a long time with Cal McChrystal, who directed the physical comedy for One Man, Two Guv’nors. He was fundamental to helping us find who we are as clowns, and since then working with other directors has helped us open up those characters to different point of views. As a company we have been doing this for 13 years now and it is interesting to get together with people who work in quite different ways. We worked with the Lyric’s Sean Holmes, who is known for directing new writing, recently on a version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that we hope to bring to Hammersmith in the future.
 
And you’ve also worked with a writer for the first time – how has that been?
It’s been interesting because we’ve tried to streamline our process and not take quite so long to make a show as we have done in the past. For this we took the risk of compressing the working process and for that it was necessary to have Carl Gross on board creating a strong narrative structure which we then could jump all over, destroy and try and do it as well as we can.
 
You are often compared to Monty Python – is this a comparison you embrace?
We never like to describe ourselves as being like Monty Python because for anyone in our generation they are the giants, but when we go to other countries that is the frame of reference people use and there is definitely an ‘English-ness’ to our humour.
 
With 13 years behind you as a company, is there still plenty more to come from Spymonkey?
Stephan says getting older will be the interesting thing about the company. It’s easy for people in their 20s and 30s to run around and throw themselves around but when people in their 60s and 70s are doing it that will be brilliant.
 
Oedipussy runs at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, from April 10-21

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