Unicorn Theatre (Weston Theatre)
The Weston Theatre becomes an in-the-round arena for this first play in the Unicorn’s Greek Season. Into it comes Ariadne with her spool of bright red thread to mark her route back out when she comes to visit the Minotaur, the man with a bull’s head imprisoned in the middle of a maze.
The maze is marked out with lines of light, the Minotaur looks like a lumbering longshoreman, his bull’s head fashioned from angular metal mesh. Ariadne plays a mbira, a metal-tongued thumb harp that seems to pacify the creature as she seeks him, offering her love and trying to teach him her name. She hands the thread to a youngster in the front row to maintain the passage angle, the Minotaur’s grunts and her soft calling have an added echo and we are in the maze.
Director Tarek Iskander and designer Louie Whitemore have devised a simple and stylish staging that heightens the actors’ presence and actively involves the audience.
This hour-long take on the classic story trims it to its basics and makes a few changes from the usual telling. In the usual version, Queen Pasiphae of Crete has developed a perverted passion for a white bull that turns up on the beach and with the help of inventor Daedalus mates with it resulting in the birth of the bull-headed Minotaur which her husband King Minos imprisons in a labyrinth.
Athenians, perhaps jealous of his sporting victories, killed Minos’s son sparking a war in revenge which Minos won, his peace terms an annual tribute of seven young men and seven young women to be cast into the labyrinth.
Theseus is a boy fathered in Troezen by Athenian King Aegeus who, when grown up, goes to Athens to present himself to his father bearing a sword that will confirm his paternity. In Athens, he offers himself as part of the tribute, kills the Minotaur and escapes with Minos’s daughter Ariadne who has helped him, though abandoning her on the island of Naxos before returning to Athens where his failure to carry out a prearranged signal makes Aegeus think him dead and commit suicide so that Theseus becomes King.
Adam Peck’s version makes no mention of Pasiphae and the Minotaur becomes Minos’s son, with no explanation of how he was gotten, Ariadne a compassionate sister who goes into the labyrinth to befriend him and Theseus now doesn’t dump her but takes her with him to Athens.
King Minos is a plain-speaking tyrant. Rupert Holliday Evans plays him without scruples or compassion. Ben Adams’s Aegeus quails before him, cowardly and spineless, trying to deflect responsibility for his cruel compliance. Here these fathers become a repressive older generation in contrast to the youthful idealism of their children.
Anna Elijasz’s gentle, delightful Ariadne longs to get away from her father. When Theo Solomon’s brave and beautiful Theseus turns up, he’s not just someone she fancies, he’s her escape route. She wants to help him and, if she cannot rescue her Minotaur brother from imprisonment in the labyrinth, she sees death as the only way to end.
The simplification of the story avoids the excisions from the story and the prurient questions from the 7-year-olds and up at whom the production is aimed. Theseus’s confrontations on the road from Troezen to Athens are painlessly presented in stylised violence. The Minotaur (Ben Adams mainly, but does Theo Solomon play him to begin with?) is a little frightening, especially when he comes through the audience in the darkness, but that doesn’t stop plenty of youngsters volunteering to be his victims.
A son for a son is what Minos first asks for: when Aegeus declares he has none, he asks for 7 children, increased to 14 when Aegeus balks at making their selection, when any youngster ”Athenian” in the audience may find themselves chosen and get their special moments of excitement before Theseus arrives and there’s a son to send instead.
Performances and staging are direct and effective (though I wonder whether all the audience can see when Aegeus leaps to his death). David W Kidd’s lighting and sound and music all make a contribution but the simplification leaves something missing.
Such ancient stories carry a load of meaning but what is this version trying to tell us: be brave, take risks, go forward, do things to help others? Perhaps, but this production lacks mythical proportions. It charms and amuses rather than moves us.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton