Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek was the first cockney opera to premiere at Germany (Munich) in 1988. In fact, it was the English composer’s brilliantly timed and socially relevant opera that shot him to fame. Thirty years forward, and many productions later, Thatcher has gone as well as the English riots and miners’ strike. Britain’s new social malaise is more of a technological vermin. At Grimeborn, director Jonathan Moore, who adapted Greek with Turnage from Steven Berkoff’s effing and blinding stage play, instils the same potency and urgency as if it were being staged for the first time, again.
Set in East London, coincidently where the Arcola Theatre resides, Eddy takes ‘no’ for an answer as he forces himself into the Dalston theatre. Edmund Danon plays our lad, geezer… lout! Loud and brash, he takes to the stage as a modern-day bloke from the pub but in Turnage’s eyes he is Sophocles’ Greek protagonist Oedipus. Eddy shouts, spits and spills the beans on the country’s bitter disappointments with rage; one side of the stage is a graffiti wall with the capital letters ‘hipsters out’ written on it. Above, there’s video recordings of the 80’s police riots – England has turned into a bloody ‘state of the plague’.
Before the performance begins, Baśka Wesołowska’s set design is taped up – no one can enter the slick, pitch black stage. Yet, once all four performers step onto it they becomes sacred and holy like an artefact of historical significance – Greek sculptures on a plinth. Matt Leventhall’s red and yellow LED lights, which outline the stage, tell the audience to stay out and to keep their eyes on what’s in front of them.
Turnage’s electrifying music is brutal, full of attitude and verve, which is eagerly illustrated by the 12-musicians of the Kantanti Ensemble and conductor Tim Anderson, and they deliver on thrill and excitement. There are peculiar notes and intriguing sounds from feet-stomping, the brass and percussion instruments, horns, piano and harp. Yet, lyricism also exists in Turnage’s score that the Gooners’ chants seem melodic and sweet-sounding.
Moore has four soloists (playing all eleven characters) perform a montage of theatrical styles: opera, spoken word, vaudeville, comedy and Greek theatre, and they are alert and mighty impressive. It is simply brilliant! Greek is cleverly and dynamically choreographed too. Eddy fights the manager of a cafe (Oedipus’s biological father) and the scene is rather memorable. Richard Morrison, also performing the role of Eddy’s non-biological and chavy, skinhead father, punches it out with Eddy from a distance. As they take air swings at each other, their mouths burst with swear words as if they were drawn in a comic book, ‘Kapow!’, ‘Wham!’… ‘Testicles!’
Danon is a tour de force as the edgy and restless Eddy. Although Greek is a mix between spoken word and song Danon executes adeptly on all accounts. He demonstrates the facets of his voice and stage abilities: richly seductive vocals with Eddy’s mother and wife, and dramatically violent as Oedipus plucking out his eyes. Laura Woods provides remarkable impressions of several roles: Eddy’s sister, the fortune teller at South End, Eddy’s wife and, as we discover, his real-life mum too. She is vocally stronger as Oedipus’s mother where Turnage wrote the most eloquent and gut-wrenching bars, especially when she mourns the death of her murdered husband – the dead manager of the cafe. Philippa Boyle’s hilarious waitress and powerful sphinx-like expressions deserve credit too as she transforms into Eddy’s dim-witted mum, always seen in an apron. Boyle’s enthusiasm for performance is evident and her lyric soprano voice alone is outstanding. And Morrison’s unflagging ability to evoke Eddy’s narrow-minded and basic father is constantly animated, evocative, and, in many cases, funny.
Greek is a 75-minute mash-up of rough, violent energy and impressively bold performances that merge the old with the new. The work stands as a remarkable piece of operatic history. Hold tight, you’re in for a rude ride.
Greek is showing at the Arcola Theatre on 15, 17 & 18 August 7. 30 pm. For more information on the Grimeborn Festival and get tickets, click here.
I was provided a press ticket to review the show