Award-winning theatre company takes a fresh look at Oedipus
“I wanted to reclaim it from a female perspective,” Mella Faye tells me. She then pauses and briefly looks away, as if contemplating several millennia of dramatic tradition. “When I was growing up, all my favourite movies were about men on a quest to discover themselves and the world. We are beginning to put females into those roles, but they’re just substitutes for men. The structure of the male protagonist story doesn’t fit the female that well. We’ve our own story to tell.” The Artistic Director of award-winning theatre company Pecho Mama is now looking to right this imbalance with a concept which is as radical as it is simple. Marrying contemporary urban grit with an uncompromising electronic soundtrack, they’ve reinvented a timeless tale of a doomed love triangle.
It follows on from their critically-acclaimed Medea Electronica, a wild and imaginative retelling of an ancient tragedy transplanted into 80’s England. Coming to Hove’s The Old Market on Weds 15 – Sat 18 Nov, Oedipus Electronica revisits a classical standard; one which originally sees a young man unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother. The woman then committing suicide when the horrifying truth of this relationship is revealed. “What’s so great about the Greek myths is that they are so intensely over the top. The first show we did was ‘mother kills her children to avenge her cheating husband. This one is ‘mother shags her son, who’s killed her partner’. You can’t get juicier in plot points. That allows us to go into the deep subconscious psyche, so we can mess around in places. The taboo is already on the poster.” Now Pecho Mama lends new agency to the star-crossed matriarchal character of Jocasta. She’s reimagined as a struggling playwright who finds she can’t carry her baby to full term. Facing both a commission deadline and an emergency hysterectomy, she explores both harrowing Greek folklore and her own personal grief.
“She’s living in London with a beautifully happy marriage and gets taken to the edge. She wants to just stay in her room and write this wild thing, which is swirling around in her crazed subconscious. She uses the wild dreamworld of her child that didn’t live and the one now battling to survive inside her to go on a mad journey, which she writes down and makes real in her mind.” Faye has written, directed and performs in this extraordinary search through the female psyche, in all its feral, carnal and creative glory.
I suggest that profound creativity and mental wellbeing can often be interconnected. She reveals the show originally addressed these themes, but it was removed in later drafts because everyone has the capacity to get lost in a story and need to fight their way out of it to become well again. But perhaps through exploration is how we can achieve that. “All of us are making up stories all the time. Like ‘you shouldn’t have done that to me’, or ‘one day I’ll be successful’. That’s often the root cause of so much mental unwellness, because we get stuck in something which is just an idea… Whether you think you’re unworthy or that nobody likes you.”
Accompanied by an uncompromising live band, Oedipus Electronica is a fascinating, boundary-defying and interweaving production. She tells me Pecho Mama is a band as much as a theatre company. She writes the script in tandem with the soundtrack, much like how a concept album might be composed. “Quite often we’ll start sessions talking about the scene it’ll be supporting, so we can get in the zone of how angry, desperate, sorrowful or sexy is required of the music. Then we’ll just get lost in playing together. We’ll record some bits of it and come back later to shape those into a score.” This piece is a natural progression from their last show, which predominantly featured musicians. It sees a big leap in production values, especially in terms of the technical, aesthetic and performance ambitions onstage.
Originally created pre-pandemic, the production was just about to go into ‘tech-week’ before lockdown happened. “I was in complete denial. Theatres were calling me up saying we might have to postpone it, and I thought it was all going to be fine and blow over.” Originally created for 2020, it wasn’t staged until last year; essentially seeing two rounds of getting to the point where it could be staged and seen.
The isolation of lockdown did have a significant impact upon the show’s narrative. “I spent so much time on my own, and all I could do was look at the writing. I got in touch with my own experiences of the topics raised. And my understanding of the power of stories to transform us. I became a massive podcast addict on anything that was about story.” Faye found herself becoming increasingly fascinated with the power storytelling offers everyone to transform things which subconsciously dominate their lives. This means of catharsis and understanding would become the central heart of Oedipus Electronica.
There has been a reappraisal of the male domination of the performing arts since the 80s. The stories we’re told are no longer inevitably patriarchal in nature. But 5,000 years of tradition aren’t instantly overturned by the Barbie film. Men are still presented as powerful and active, while women are often reduced to being passive objects. Reframing ‘the ladies’ as something more than characters to save or seduce might be a simple task, but difficulties could arise when trying to attract audiences who’ve been accustomed to seeing narratives presented with a male gaze.
Faye concedes that it’s uncharted territory. Even female makers are trying to work out what it is. “It’s like we’re at nursery school, and just getting the chance to speak our story for the first time in thousands of years. That’s the main thing I’m excited for; taking these ancient myths and wondering what they’d be like if told through the experience and voice of a female.”
The performance of Oedipus Electronica at The Old Market is also going to be filmed. “The camera men are dancers, and they’ll be moving around us. Which means the footage is really close and cinematic, as we move through the narrative. I’m really excited for the end product.” She admits having a fondness for filmmaking as a medium, but stresses that theatre is unique in its ability to bring people together in a way we all need. With less of us attending church it’s become one of the main times where we come together to experience something human. “But it is struggling. There isn’t a lot of support for theatres and theatre makers. My kind has been toying with film for a while, as it seems to be a medium which can reach a lot of people.”
In a bid to nurture the next generation of performers, Faye will also be hosting a free theatre workshop during Pecho Mama’s visit to TOM. Taking place on Sun 5 Nov, she and participants will explore the joy and power of storytelling. “The idea is to present a session where I share my way of working, and then invite people to contribute the bones of an idea. Then we work to move that idea into being as a piece of art. As a group we collectively work with whoever’s volunteering their own experience into the mix.” She’s really keen for the experience to be just as much for those with little experience as it is for someone who is struggling through their sixth project and needs encouragement to advance.
Both the workshop and the production of Oedipus Electronica seek to offer a sense of how we can all be transformed by our own creativity, and perhaps encourage a willingness to accept all our darkness and joy. It’s unashamedly a powerful show, leaving a few people quite startled. But the central message is how we can elevate ourselves through shared experience and emotion. “We’re all trying to work out what it means to be here. Theatre is a beautiful way of exploring that. A really good story doesn’t come up with a straightforward answer. But it instead asks all the questions. It’s a very human thing.”
Pecho Mama’s Oedipus Electronica comes to Hove’s The Old Market on Weds 15 – Sat 18 Nov