The Off-Off-Off-Broadway Company are perennial and very popular visitors to Buxton – though this year their playwright Polis Loizou is the only one in attendance, with a new one-man show set in late-nineteenth-century Cyprus. In the aftermath of a mysterious death, gossip and superstition create a febrile atmosphere which foreshadows further tragedy.
A shepherd is awoken at night by strange noises, and while checking for threats to his sheep, finds a boy dying in a cursed olive grove. As rumours swirl around the village about what has happened to the boy, the shepherd hears differing accounts and tells us his own suspicions about what is going on. The ghost of a Anatolian woman, brutally murdered for fear of her supernatural powers, is at large… and as omens and signs proliferate, the shepherd is overwhelmed by ominous forebodings, and nightmares of crooked saints.
Loizou, who has recently had his first novel published, displays a growing maturity in his writing. Motifs are cleverly repeated but not laboured, building a sense of unease and dread. I particularly liked the use of stories within stories, where local tales and legends are explained and undercut with different versions and explanations; there is never a simple truth, and behind the mounting fear and uncertainty lies a theme of superstition versus rationality. And it's all set against the backdrop of a fracturing society, as the Turks who have ruled for years are replaced by an English Queen, who knows nothing of the Cypriots – whether Greek or Turkish – and their ways.
There is a suspicion that Loizou is more at home as a storyteller than as an actor, but he gives a capable portrayal of a man who views himself as more clear-sighted than those villagers he considers fools. The other characters he introduces to us are well-chosen and nicely delineated: the self-justifying Mukhtar who has lost his son, the bright and independent local beauty – confined and hidden to protect her from ghosts – and Stasha on her donkey, a refreshing voice of reason who admonishes “Don’t listen to them”. They all extend the story and bring different attitudes to bear, while some simple but carefully chosen lighting and sound effects set the scenes distinctively and build the suspense convincingly.
One of the pleasant things about seeing the same company or playwright over a number of years is seeing how their work develops and changes. Off-Off-Off-Broadway have always had an eye for the uncanny, but in this production I felt that it wasn’t being forced; rather, it arose organically from the story. It's another step forward for the company and Pols Loizou. A Curse of Saints’ enthralling storytelling makes for a thoroughly enjoyable show.