Reviewed – 10th August 2018
“the characters are pretty grotesque, but the cast still manage to earn our sympathy to a degree“
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s first opera, “Greek”, first performed in 1988, established his reputation as a unique composer, blending jazz and classical styles of music, shifting between modernism and tradition. Like Steven Berkoff, who wrote the libretto and on whose play of the same title this is based, he deliberately eschews mainstream aspirations. Consequently, this is not going to be to everyone’s taste, but the combination yields an intensely thrilling experience in this new production as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre.
It is an incisive retelling of the Oedipus myth, relocating Sophocle’s play to North London in a Thatcherite Britain. Oedipus is now an angry young man, Eddy, who breaks away from his pernicious yet affectionate parents. He doesn’t know he’s adopted. We do. As we also know that the greasy-spoon café owner he kills in a brawl is his biological father. It is quite hard to swallow, especially the speed with which he shacks up with the dead man’s wife, aka his mother, as her husband is still lying bleeding on the ground.
The eighteen-piece orchestra pounds through the austere and often atonal score complementing the four singers’ performance which shares the same mix of lyricism and brutality. Sung in a cockney twang the narrative is clear, despite combining street talk with classical diction, and director Jonathan Moore’s uncomplicated staging amplifies the effect. Edmund Danon packs his rags-to-riches rise with coarse humour as he encounters love, wealth and finally his true identity. Eddy’s keening cry on discovering that his wife is his mother is chilling, if short lived. Tragedy is averted, in true Berkoff style: “Bollocks to all that” Eddy pronounces with rebellious bravado.
Richard Morrison, as the racist, working-class Dad manages to gain sympathy by being as much a victim as a symptom of the society he is trapped in: the “plague”, as it is referred to, of poverty blamed on Thatcher austerity. Philippa Boyle, as Mum, also multi-roles, infusing much needed comedy into the social commentary, while Laura Woods as the widow/wife lends her self-serving materialism a tenderness. In short, the characters are pretty grotesque, but the cast still manage to earn our sympathy to a degree.
The performances are consistently and superbly strong, but the overall effect is slightly tainted by Berkoff glaringly using the characters, especially Eddy, to use his own voice to speak against society. But although this occasionally detracts from the emotive performances, this is an enthralling, challenging production. A bit of an onslaught, admittedly, yet powerfully compelling
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
Arcola Theatre until 18th August