REVIEW: Carcinus Rex (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Anuja Mitra

[Crab Pincers and Prophecies]

Most of us have heard of the deeply unlucky Oedipus, whether we are familiar with Sophoclean tragedy or Freud’s infamous Oedipus complex. Devised by Stray Theatre Company, Carcinus Rex offers a loose, highly comic interpretation of the story: What destiny awaits Carcinus, best crab in Thebes? 

A group of squabbling gulls narrate the opening sequence, introducing Carcinus, who was raised in a human family and does not know he is a crab. He spends much of his day either being hassled by his brother or doing chores, though his claws cause him to fumble through simple tasks. The tale of the good-hearted underdog who struggles being different will strike anyone who has seen children’s films as familiar, an impression cemented by Troticles, who echoes a Disney villain. A horse who happens to be king of Thebes, Troticles is told by the oracle that a certain crab will cause his downfall. He murders Carcinus’s parents and enslaves Carcinus, sending him on a string of Herculean labours in the hopes of getting rid of him. It is while embarking on these absurd quests that Carcinus learns things about himself he never could have predicted, as well as making some friends along the way. 

The jokes come quickly while moving the story forward. This is aided by the enthusiasm of the performers, particularly Ben Hemara as Troticles and Isaac Hooper as a gull and mascot of Thebes’s oil rig. Those acquainted with classical literature will find a play on some common tropes of Greek myth, such as characters being set vague or impossible tasks (Carcinus is told at one point to seek magical apples “somewhere”). In one amusing sketch, our hero is ordered to slay an old hermit. Reluctant to do the deed but convinced that he has to (including by the hermit himself), the two think of how they can cause the old man’s death in a way that preserves Carcinus’s honour and integrity. Crime, honour and shame are of course major ideas in Greek tragedy. Among the aspects borrowed directly from myth are the oracle as a blindfolded figure with scissors and thread; a simple but arresting image recalling the Fates. 

Carcinus Rex touches on climate change and marine pollution, with Carcinus meeting a gull who helps run an oil rig and later cleaning up the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. It might have been interesting for this theme to have been developed further, or integrated more into the story — for example, by making all of Carcinus’s labours linked to the environment (his final task with the lion isn’t clearly connected to the other labours). Carcinus’s position as a crab in a human world could also have been explored, since it means he has a relationship both with the people damaging the environment and the animals that suffer as a result. 

The end of the show brings a major revelation for Carcinus and poses a classic question: Power, but at what cost? The masks by Alexandra Andrews are effective in evoking Greek theatre and creating an ominous final image — or what would be the final image, if not for the appearance of a long-dead playwright. Overall, Carcinus Rex is an enjoyably zany show featuring mysterious prophecies, musical seagulls and one mischievous clam tongue.

Carcinus Rex is presented by Stray Theatre Company and plays at University of Auckland Drama Studio as part of Auckland Fringe.

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