Suffering for your art may sound appealing, but in practice it’s rarely so romantic. Just ask the stage crew behind Stink Foot, adapted from Sophocles’s tragedy Philoctetes. Post-performance, these unfortunates are charged with cleaning buckets-worth of quicksand-thick black treacle from the stage of Hackney Wick’s The Yard Theatre; it takes nearly two hours every night.
It’s appropriate for a play that’s focused on suffering. The titular Philoctetes (played brilliantly by Daniel Millar) was stranded on the isle of Lemnos by his former comrades-in-arms when they could no longer stand the stench of his war-wounded, festering foot. Ten years later he’s every inch the betrayed lion, seething with resentment against Odysseus (Rosie Thomson), who gave the command.
When young, principled Neo (Joshua Miles) is enlisted to trick him back to the battlefield, the ethical dilemma at the heart of the story unfolds. Should Philoctetes’ suffering be dismissed for the greater good of the Greek war effort, or do we sympathise more with the personal justice he seeks?
Jeff James’s adaptation strips down Sophocles’ original to a three-actor show while seeking to foreground its emotive clout. After a slow start it’s largely successful, due to strong lead performances and a canny balancing of language, which veers between blunt slang, ear-piercing sonic assaults and more polished classical phrasing. Then there’s the treacle itself – a pleasingly messy, in-your-face representation of Philoctetes’ sticky situation and the raw pain he must endure.
Philoctetes rarely gets staged in the UK, and is something of an anomaly as an all-male tragedy. James’s interpretation injects a dose of revisionism, making Odysseus female and the ghost of Hercules an ineffective party-starter, while introducing some feelgood recompense for the slighted Philoctetes. While the humour is welcome, it does dilute the play’s tragic overtones, and therefore its ethical conundrums; perhaps a necessary choice for an adaptation that remains tethered to its ancient source rather than reinventing suffering for a modern audience.
Stink Foot is at the Yard Theatre, Queen’s Yard, E9 5EN until 13 December