Greek – Arcola Theatre, London

Music: Mark-Anthony Turnage

Director: Jonathan Moore

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

In recent years, opera companies have worked hard to shake off their elitist image. Cheaper ticket prices, more work performed in the English language and initiatives such as opera up-close, taking shows to more intimate venues. Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Moore know that story and setting are half the battle, and in their exciting revival of Greek at the Arcola Theatre, use the artform to reflect audience’s own lives and experiences back at them.

Based on the Oedipus legend and using a libretto by Steven Berkoff, Greek is the story of Eddy, a working-class lad desperate to escape the limitations of his background and family. Dogged by a gypsy premonition of a dark fate ahead, Eddy is attracted to violence, becoming embroiled in a series of major riots before a fatal encounter in a greasy spoon changes his life irrevocably.

Part of the Arcola’s annual Grimeborn Season which promotes new and forgotten work, Turnage and Moore’s opera could have been written last week but is celebrating its 30thanniversary. Its themes of limited opportunity, teenage frustration with the world, sporadic societal violence and the conquering power of love couldn’t be more contemporary in a nation struggling to find its identity – a state that mirrors Eddy’s seemingly endless rage against the world and, to a degree, his selfish focus on his own satisfaction.

Adapting the work for new audiences, Berkoff’s characters may be larger-than-life but the very ordinariness of the setting and language instantly puts the audience at ease, while Moore’s small-scale approach emphasises the recognisable – it’s opera, but it’s relatable. It may be Greek tragedy, but the characters talk about daytrips to Southend, they eat bacon for breakfast and drink tea, go to pubs and wine bars, and in a crudely funny moment Eddy fronts-up to the Sphynx and calls her a slag.

Turnage’s music is equally unusual, played by The Kantanti Ensemble of 18 musicians conducted by Tim Anderson. There’s a lot of different musical styles mixed in with the classical opera tradition including Cockney Music Hall and clashing jazz. Often, the singers provide the tune while the orchestra are playing something that deliberately works against it, creating a series of cacophonous noises that add to the rising tension, almost a souring, as though the music knows something the characters do not.

Edmund Danon’s Eddy makes a notable entrance, attempting to break into the theatre without a ticket, a scene made to look real. Finally on stage, he’s full of macho angst, ever-ready for a fight and Danon emits a palpable menace for much of the first Act. But, there’s more underneath, and we see Eddy’s struggle to find his place, a desire for more, which is later rerouted into a fairly graphic passion for his new wife that transforms him without entirely quelling the destructive urge beneath the surface.

Philippa Boyle as Mum, Richard Morrison as Dad and Laura Woods as Wife lend enjoyable comic support in a forgivably cliched depiction of working-class life – opera is often a fairly broad-brush medium – and play any number of supporting characters from fortune tellers to cooks and gossipy waitresses, although occasionally the pitch loses the sense of the libretto or is drowned in the music.

Even at a little over 75-minutes, a few of the song and phrases are repeated a bit too often, and you just want them to get on with it, but all is quickly forgiven with lines as wonderful as “my dearest wife and now my mum.” Innovatively staged and fun to watch Greek is a great gateway opera, a chance to see a familiar story in a recognisable setting that makes this opera completely accessible.

Runs Until 18 August 2018 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli

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One Comment

  1. I was disappointed to miss this as I thoroughly enjoyed the production I saw at the Linbury about five years ago. I have a fraught relationship with Turnage’s work, but at his best he’s very good. For example, I loved his (and Amanda Holden’s) treatment of O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie and am at a loss to know why our major English language opera (ENO) regularly puts on German and Italian classic works in translation but never seems to revive this exciting modern full length opera whose libretto is actually in English (there is a concert performance at the Barbican in November but that, probably, is not the best introduction if you’re primarily interested in theatre). On the other hand, I have avoided Anna Nicole – which seems to be more successful – as I thought it rather tasteless to be putting the poor woman’s story on the opera stage when she was hardly cold and a lot of her friends and relatives still very much alive. Greek is a fine chamber piece and Berkoff’s egregious style is perfect for operatic treatment. Both this review and the reports of friends who have seen the production suggest that the Arcola has done this full justice. If there were a matinee tomorrow I’d almost certainly have done a day trip (although the Linbury version played a couple of nights at Manchester’s RNCM it seems unlikely this new one will venture north) but I’d never get home after an evening show.

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