Spymonkey's 'Oedipussy' - what happens when clowns get old?

Spymonkey's 'Oedipussy' Spymonkey's 'Oedipussy' - © Alexis Chabala
Posted: Thu Mar 29 2012

Spymonkey tell us about their peculiar take on Oedipus and growing old disgracefully

Shamelessly silly, endlessly inventive and unexpectedly touching, the physical comedy company Spymonkey has tackled everything from literature (in 'Moby Dick') to Las Vegas (in Cirque du Soleil's 'Zumanity'), and served as our own Terry Wogan substitutes in Time Out Live's Alternative Eurovision. For their new show, the foursome - Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss - join director Emma Rice (Kneehigh) and writer Carl Groce to tackle one of the ur-texts of western culture: Sophocles's 'Oedipus Rex'. Or, in their James Bond-meets-Barbarella-via-Monty Python take, 'Oedipussy'.

One critic's description of their 'Moby Dick' as 'middle-aged and safe' got the troupe thinking about ageing and 'Oedipussy' includes frequent reference to their advanced years and developing ailments and injuries. So, how do clowns get old?

'Greek tragedy offers opportunities to play [with] the fact that you get older and things happen to you and you can't do anything to avoid them,' says Basauri, 42, who is from Spain. Massey, 45, agrees: 'I love the idea of the passing of time because it gives me an excuse to talk about my multitude of illnesses in great detail. If I wasn't a performer, I would have been a surgeon because I am fascinated with blood, seeing someone's insides, and I like to sew.'

Can comedy address such sober issues? 'If one slips on a banana peel and falls over really badly, that's comedy,' notes Kreiss, 50, who's German. 'If one falls over and breaks his neck and is dead then it's tragedy.' A thin line, then. And comedy can be a vital relief. 'When we laugh hard,' he says, 'we can't think of anything else. This is one of the rare moments when our brain is purely focused on one thing. It takes our mind off other things. It has the purity of a baby who is totally focused on having a poo.'

Even so, laughs don't come easy for physical comedians. 'Sometimes audiences - especially with slapstick routines - do not realise how painful and exhausting certain moments are for us,' Kreiss adds. 'And I'm sure that the harder you get kicked, the more it hurts, the more vicious it is, the more people will laugh. That's when the tragic suffering of the performer becomes the audience's comedy.'

Young entertainers can take the bumps in their stride but, since their 1998 debut, Spymonkey have had to adjust. 'We have to play physically in a different way because our bodies hurt,' Basauri says. 'They hurt quite a lot.' So are they as much athletes as performers? 'Yes,' says Kreiss, 'but with all the painkillers I have to take in order to get through the show every night, as an athlete I would be banned for doping.'

Wear and tear can bring indignity - but Spymonkey have always been fine with that. 'Sometimes when I am doing screaming acting or get picked up and thrown around the stage, a bit of pee can pop out,' Massey says. 'I did try to exercise my internals but it's really boring and those walls of fatty muscles will probably remain untoned. It's not mortifying, just a bit soggy. And I like that it pisses the others off.'

The ageing process needn't be a clown's enemy, though. 'You lose in physicality but you gain in poignancy and ridiculousness because you are doing things that people 40 years younger than you would normally do,' Basauri notes. Kreiss agrees: 'One gets away with more. Certain things are loathed when you're young and tender. People will say: “Not funny! This is so childish! Fucking grow up!” But if you insist on doing them once you hit your fifties or sixties, the same people suddenly say: “My God, that's so funny - an old man being so childish!” So time is on my side!'

The company's members have no plans to throw in the towel. 'My goal is to be doing what I do till I am at least 80 years old, however knackered I am,' Massey insists. 'It would be amazing to be a wrinkly and still make people laugh and do some doddery acrobatics. Not sure if I will still be getting naked by then but if there is a demand I will deliver…'