Greek at the Arcola Theatre review *****

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Greek

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 13th August 2018

It is a shame Steven Berkoff’s plays don’t get performed more often. They do, like the stage, film and TV villains he has memorably played, (there he is above doing the menacing thing), sometimes lapse into “in yer face” cliche, but at their best they are thrilling theatre. The verse plays, notably East, West and Decadence, are the most exciting, and Greek, which transports Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to East End London in the 1980s, was inspired. A few nips and tucks to make it fit but moreorless the same brilliant story. I love it, see here for the latest incarnation (Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****). Aristotle thought it was the greatest story ever told and he, being the cleverest bloke that ever lived, knew a thing or two.

More inspired still though was when young Essex lad. Mark-Anthony Turnage, just 28, announced himself to the world with an opera version of Berkoff’s already “musical” play. His mentor Hans Werner Henze suggested the Munich Biennale commission him, and Jonathan Moore helped him with the libretto and directed the premiere. And Mr Moore, no less, was back to direct this production. I was lucky enough to see the first revival in 1990 at the ENO and, I tell you, it blew my socks off. I knew it was possible for opera to be the best of art forms when I was a young’un but I had also been disappointed by some allegedly top notch productions of classics by the likes of Verdi, Puccini and, even, God forgive me, Wagner. I was bored witless by much of this nonsense. But Greek, as one of the first contemporary operas I saw, made me realise that it is the theatre that matters and not the singing. Not saying that when the singing, music and drama all come together I can’t be moved by “classic” opera, especially Mozart and Monteverdi, just that it is a lot easier when the stories stack up and mean something to me and the music isn’t just a bunch of whistling tunes all loosely stitched together.

Of course some buffs might not accept that Greek is an opera at all, more musical theatre in the manner of Brecht and Weill at their best. I see their point. Indeed M-AT, probably more to wind us all up, termed it an anti-opera. Anyway who cares. Greek was a punch in the gut and food for the brain first time round for sure. Mr Turnage, with his rock and jazz inflections, and his adoration of Stravinsky especially, and the likes of Britten and Berg, as well as teacher Oliver Knussen, knows how to compose for the theatre. I knew nothing about the source of his latest outing Coraline (Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****) so had no baggage and, whilst if might not be up to Greek and to his version of The Silver Tassie, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

No need to trot you through the story here in detail I assume. By having the lead, here named Eddie, living a life of frustration in Thatcher’s Britain, Berkoff and Turnage have a contemporary alternative for the plague afflicting Thebes. Mr Moore wisely sticks with the 1980s, no need to invoke “Austerity/Brexit” Britain, that would be crass, which designer Baska Wesolowska, through set and multiple costume changes, neatly evokes. Class relations, cultural impoverishment, addiction, the patriarchy, hopelessness are all revealed but never bog down the story.

The differences between “foundling” Eddy and his heavy drinking Mum and Dad, and Sister, are highlighted by their over the top, “gor-blimey, Eastender, chav, working class” dialogue (no arias here folks) and movements. Eddy is angry and frustrated with them so, after having his fortune told, understandably f*cks off to meet, then marry Wife/real Mum, after an ill-fated altercation with her first hubby in a caff. There’s a fair bit of cursing and violence and the still marvellous riot, Sphinx and “mad” scenes, where M-AT’s brilliantly percussive score is at its best. It is funny and aggressive by turns, is deliberately cartoonish, has some great tunes and musical, (and music-hall), echoes and it belts through the story. And there’s a twist as you might have guessed.

Edmund Danon was a perfect Eddy if you ask me. M-AT asks for a high baritone and that is what Mr Danon provides. Every word was clear as a bell and boy did he get round the Arcola space. As did baritone Richard Morrison as Dad (as well as the, in so many ways, unfortunate Cafe owner and the Police Chief). For choice I preferred the mezzo voice of Laura Woods as Wife, as well as sister Doreen, Sphinx I and Waitress I, over the purer soprano of Philippa Boyle as Mum, Sphinx II and Waitress II.

Greek is now a staple of the operatic circuit as it can reliably pull in younger punters to even the grandest of opera houses, (the ROH got on the bandwagon in 2011). Its physicality, irreverence, punky aesthetic and social commentary can appear a little quaint now, especially if it is “over-produced” in a big space. Which, once again shows why Grimeborn, and the Arcola, is the perfect setting for works like this. With the Kantanti Ensemble, founded by conductor Lee Reynolds to showcase the best young musicians in the South East, under the baton of Tim Anderson, by turns belting out, and reining in, the score, the toes of the audience at risk of crushing from the four performers bounding around the Arcola main stage, and with the original director in charge, this production stripped Greek back to where is should be. Another Grimeborn triumph.

I genuinely urge you to try and see this once in your life. Especially if you think opera is for w*ankers. You will be blown away without any need to reassess that, largely reasonable, preconception.

The Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Rape of Lucretia

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 1st August 2018

The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.

The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent),  and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.

As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.

Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where),  and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.

How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.

Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.

I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.

The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.

The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.