Forget convention! This is opera, but not as we know it! Greek, by Mark-Anthony Turnage, is a modern opera based on Steven Berkoff’s play and first performed in 1988. It certainly is of that period, with references to Margaret Thatcher and the newly fashioned “wine bars” of the time. It is a retelling of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex, but with a 20th century twist: Oedipus is now the young working class Eddy.
There are four singers: two male (Alex Otterburn and Andrew Shore) and two female (Susan Bullock and Allison Cook), but eleven characters in total. And they intersperse with perfection. Their body language and facial expressions convey the roles of sullen teenager, anxious parents and sphinx perfectly. The costumes are elaborate, loud, and 1980s in style, with track suits and trainers and a whole lot of very colourful PVC. There are also many wigs to support character changes, and these changes are very quickly executed.
The audience really focus on the characters, especially Eddy, adorned in red—a sign of the passion and danger that awaits him—against the pure white backdrop, with two gaps for doorways, which rotate to symbolize a change in time or place. Shadows are used cleverly, as is projection. Characters take themselves, individually, to a desk, which the audience can see, to create a collage of Heinz Beans, Tomato Ketchup and Brown Sauce followed by, yes, maggots, to symbolize violence and politics. This works remarkably well and ties in with the whole style of the piece.
There’s a lot of humour in this opera. Much of this comes from the incongruity of having an opera set in the East End of London, with characters singing and speaking in Cockney accents, exploring universal problems. Opera singers arriving on stage wearing football scarfs and singing “Arsenal”, “Yeah”, “Nah”, “Phwoar”, is not really what an audience expects.
When Eddy does, albeit unknowingly, kill his father, his mother sings of her grief in true operatic style, but this prompts laughter, as she sings of missing him after his nights out at the sauna, no longer cleaning the dandruff from his shoulders or cleaning the vomit from his pillow.
The singing throughout is of very high quality and the orchestra is to be commended. The whole piece is incredibly refreshing and thought-provoking. The end of the show is met with rapturous applause, and emotion, as the whole production team, including Berkoff himself, take to the stage. See this if you can!