Sophocles in the 1980s: Mark Antony Turnage shapes Berkoff's contemporary East End vision of Oedipus under Thatcherism – via Tufnell Park, football crowds and a very sinister café – into opera. Music Theatre Wales' strong production, led by Marcus Farnsworth as Eddy: the original m****rf****r.
Greek packs a punch. For a generation who grew up on Trainspotting and Tarantino; for an audience familiar with Mark Ravenhill or Harold Pinter, the swearing will no longer shock – ironically, the joyously foul language virtually makes it a period piece these days. But, as Aristotle presciently pointed out more than 2,000 years ago, this story always shocks. The moment of ghastly realisation in which Oedipus and Jocasta disintegrate under the glare of the truth of their too-loving relationship never fails to spark our horror, and inspire our pity: the two ingredients of that vital Greek elixir – catharsis. Aristotle, never a man to waste a word or fudge an example, clinically proved (in his Poetics) that this tragedy is perfection. If Greek tragedy is a perfect art form, Oedipus is its most perfect subject: a hero whose virtues are his flaws, whose success is his downfall.
Music Theatre Wales' simple production (ordinary clothes, white formica furniture, an English flag, a couple of TVs and a bottle of ketchup, enlivened by a few projections on the back wall) allows Greek to take centre stage – or, at least, the centre of the thin strip of stage not otherwise taken up by the orchestra, who are massed behind the singers like an occupying army. Michael McCarthy's direction ensures this confined "stage within a stage" adds to our sense of oppression; we are pulled immediately inside Turnage's sharply observed, claustrophobic world. Life is drab and human here: whether in the East End boozer he comes to despise, his parents' scummy flat in Tufnell Park or the fateful café, Eddy is stifled by mediocrity. Outside, the "plague" of uncollected rubbish, rats and slime teems through a strike-ridden London. Long before something was rotten in the state of Denmark, Sophocles knew how to build an atmosphere of fear and loathing – and Berkoff could see, and articulate, an apt connection between the poisonous atmospheres of Thebes and Thatcher's Britain.
Mark Antony Turnage's music brings Berkoff's play to defiant life. It is expressive, inventive, deliberate and deceptive. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble produces a rounded and wonderful sound under Michael Rafferty's baton throughout. Greek opens with a brilliant sound-painting of Friday night in a cheap East End pub: sighing, drunken farewells, chants of "Arsenal", inane chitchat, all set to music which perfectly illustrates the lilt and turn of Estuary English complete with glottal stops, the vowel sounds stretching out notes in yawning, swooping curves. Later, in Act Two, the music begins to soar, with Eddy and his Wife's fabulous love duet, and the final desperate quartet after the truth has hit, "We only love, so it doesn't matter". The hysterical, blowsy jazz music which introduces the Sphinx is terrifying. Meanwhile, Berkoff's libretto (which he adapted personally from his play) is the result of powerful observation: he really captures a sense of natural conversation on the one hand, and a stilted and over-affected register on the other, as Eddy begins his social climb. It's full of sarcasm, internal jokes, and wit; and, of course, it's studded with expletives throughout.
At its world première in 1988, Greek was hailed as a "bad boy opera". Eddy is a thug, a football hooligan, whose laddish simplicity carries him inevitably towards his very complex fate. His triumph over the Sphinx is greeted with a football rattle. But props aside, he's not so different from his ancient counterpart: while Berkoff made sweeping changes to Sophocles, Eddy remains recognisably Oedipus: arrogant, aggressive, recklessly curious. Marcus Farnsworth (despite illness) played Eddy with a insouciant air of menace which worked perfectly, and conjured believably disquieting on-stage chemistry with Louise Winter, Eddy's Wife, whose disturbingly sensuous "River" aria was my musical highlight. Gwion Thomas was a wonderfully grumpy and (deliberately) gauche Dad, and Sally Silver was a revelation as one half of the Sphinx.
There are still other moments which need to mature, however. The fight between Eddy and the Café Manager (his natural father), played out in sung words, is a difficult one and is well directed here by Michael McCarthy, but still needs more tension to keep it believable. When singers left the stage during the police riot and marched into the audience, the timing went haywire. Most sadly, the balance between the singers' voices and the orchestra would sometimes slip; the occasional use of microphones may have been a last-ditch measure or a primary artistic decision, but it did have a disruptive effect which I don't think added to the piece overall. Fortunately, the good moments outweighed these glitches.
Greek is, like the blood which Eddy squirts from the ketchup bottle over his dying father in the café, both horrific and weirdly familiar. Berkoff has transported Sophocles much closer to us: his characters are now clothed in our skin, real, ordinary and intimate. As we leave, we are handed a yellow card – perhaps still a football analogy? The card asks, "What would you say to someone who has not yet booked a ticket for this show?" My answer: don't miss. Eddy smashes it.