Music Theatre Wales, Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 1 October 2013
Music by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto by Steven Berkoff based on his original stage play of the same name
Adapted by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jonathan Moore
Cast: Marcus Farnsworth / Sally Silver / Louise Winter / Gwion Thomas
Directed by Michael McCarthy
Conducted by Michael Rafferty
‘Bollocks to all that’. When Greek first erupted onto the stage at the Munich Biennale in 1988, this final, angry dismissal from tragic hero Eddy, seemed for many to sum up the angry-young-man attitude of the opera’s composer Mark-Anthony Turnage – as if his main character’s rejection of fate, moral taboo and the social ‘plague’ of what was then Thatcher’s Britain were not enough. Certainly, Turnage and co-librettist Jonathan Moore had hit on the perfect script for ‘just kicking out at things’ (if you pardon the pun) in Steven Berkoff’s modern-day reworking of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus. Turnage had been just 23 when he won a scholarship to study with Hans Werner Henze, and it was the veteran opera composer who encouraged him to write Greek; inspiring in Turnage a greater political awareness which would explode in this, his first work for the stage, alongside a growing discontent at his long-held ‘problem … with only a certain amount of people from a certain class listening to this [classical] music’.
In the event, Greek earned Turnage widespread, and deserved, accolades as a composer. It also earned him the inevitable, exaggerated ‘bad boy’ reputation from a titillated arts media, who took the bait of expletives launched from a supposedly hallowed operatic stage – not to mention such deliberately crass enticements as, ‘Fancy my mum? I’d rather go down on Hitler’. Thankfully, there’s a great deal more to this work than school-boy shock tactics and, propelled by his hardcore, bitter tale of patricide and incest, Turnage has risen in the intervening quarter century to become one of the most successful and established composers in Britain, irrespective of his music and persona continuing to divide opinion.
Not only has Greek entered the international repertoire, but it has withstood the test of time despite its specific setting in 1980’s England – as Music Theatre Wales showed once again in this revival of their award-winning 2011 production, here receiving its long-awaited Cardiff debut as part of MTW’s own 25th anniversary celebrations. Indeed, the piece has a powerful contemporary relevance for an ‘austerity Britain’ beset by widening deprivation and social injustice. Turnage’s faux East End accents might sound dated now but, sadly, his metaphoric, curse-induced ‘plague’ is all too familiar in today’s rancid culture of corporate and political greed – and Michael McCarthy’s production thrives on the parallels. For the point is that Eddy and his family are as humanly real as they are cartoonish caricatures and hapless victims of fate and, as such, they are timeless and universal. Moreover, McCarthy seizes the raw drama of their predicament and marries that with Turnage’s deeper socio-political implication to produce a brutal picture of what is in some respects England – or Britain – or many a nation – today.
A powerful sense of deja-vu emanates from the stage, as McCarthy’s video stills of the 2011 riots remind us of Brixton and Toxteth in the early ‘80s. I was a South London teenager then, and I remember the police and the smell of exhilarated terror on the streets, even as I recall the tales of police brutality and racism each time I see footage of innocent people – bystanders or protesters – struck down today. Turnage’s riot scene – like his entire, modernist bricolage score – is neither gratuitous nor chaotic, but carefully designed for maximum impact, and the exemplary MTW ensemble (eighteen players conducted with requisite bold precision by Michael Rafferty) rose to the occasion; shouting, whistling and whacking drums or plastic riot shields beneath the loudhailers and belted-out slogans of the terrific four-strong cast. In the ideal, tight confines of the Weston Studio, the audience was effectively kettled, if only for a brief moment of time.
But Greek is not all visceral rage or mob violence by any means and that same, terrific cast also gave eloquent voice to the tragedy, tenderness and, indeed, humour of the story. Marcus Farnsworth was (again) astonishingly good in his reprised role of Eddy; a bored, bewildered young man, who leaves home after his parents warn him of the prophecy that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Of course we all know that he will end up doing just that. For, unknown to Eddy, he was adopted as a baby and the waitress he falls in love with and marries – after murdering her husband in a cafe brawl over a piece of cheesecake – turns out to be his real mother, and the murdered man his father. Farnsworth portrayed Eddy’s casual aggression superbly and his dawning, awful realisation that the prophecy has come true was hair-raising, and remarkably convincing alongside Eddy’s manifest vulnerability, loyalty and fundamental good heart in wanting to rid the streets of the ‘plague’ and the vengeful Sphinxes.
Those Sphinxes were embued with sluttish wit and style by Sally Silver and Louise Winter who, together with a Gwion Thomas who was by turn, Alf Garnett bigot, marauding copper and decent family man, tackled three roles apiece with tremendous verve – and without tipping over the top into slapstick, which would be all-too easy to do. The acting, singing and spoken dialogue was mostly excellent (some miked-up passages were a little hard to catch), but there were stand-out moments of sheer delight; Winter segued her song of grief over her dead husband into one of love for Eddy with great dignity and eloquence and Silver was both very funny and moving as Eddy’s doting (adoptive) Mum.
Turnage’s fast-moving score mirrors the frenetic, confrontational action as well as the several sincerely loving exchanges between various of the characters – but especially between Eddy and his guileless Wife. Clearly, by this point in his young career, Turnage was an orchestrator to reckon with, but he also demonstrates a ferocious talent in weaving his own highly individual style from a mishmash of audible influences from Stravinsky to Shostakovich (in rhythmic dissonance), with Birtwistle-like expressionism, a Britten-esque feel for melodic inflection and the obligatory jazz and hard bop (with male ensemble members sporting white dickie bows and black suits like a dance band). I could have sworn I detected ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ too, somewhere in the mix, along with snatches of football chant.
All this would be extremely impressive regardless of Turnage’s then young age. But what really intrigues me about Greek is the fundamental conservatism which Turnage captures so vividly, and which belies the in-yer-face surface of the work; the kind of upper-working / lower-middle class aspirational conservatism which deluded people into believing that ‘Maggie is our only hope’ – a delusion which Turnage himself seems to have shared as a teenager: ‘Age 16 I was buying the Daily Telegraph … very Essex – but in my early 20s I became very anti-Thatcher and anti-Conservative.’
However, it is hardly any conversion to socialism which forms the basis of Turnage’s possible way forward, nor any real repudiation of the ugly materialism of the world he depicts. Rather – perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not – he offers us love. Having ignored the appalling homophobic 1980s’ association of the word ‘plague’ with AIDS, associating it instead with Thatcherism – and notwithstanding tasteless puns on ‘motherfuckers’ – he exhorts us finally to reject false moral strictures and to simply accept loving for what it is: ‘We only love so it doesn’t matter, mother’. It is a profoundly humanist point of arrival and seriously meant beneath the opera’s mouthy exterior. Ultimately, in Greek, Turnage but clothes his journey to it in the slightly embarrassed, macho brusqueness of a brilliantly able Essex boy in more beguiling ways than one.