Saturday 26 October 2013

Greek - Music Theatre Wales

Music Theatre Wales: Greek; Marcus Farnsworth (Eddy). Photo: Clive Barda.
Music Theatre Wales: Greek
Marcus Farnsworth (Eddy). Photo: Clive Barda.
Music Theatre Wales's production of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek debuted in 2011 and has been revived to pair up with Sciarrino's The Killing Flower.  We caught Michael McCarthy's production of Greek at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre on 25 October 2013, with Marcus Farnsworth as Eddy and Sally Silver, Louise Winter and Gwion Thomas sharing the remaining roles. Michael Rafferty conducted the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble. Turnage's visceral score is firmly enshrined in the period of its creation, the 1980's, and the interest and challenge of these performances was to see how Music Theatre Wales brought the opera back to life 25 years after its first creation.

Greek was Turnage's first opera written for Munich in 1988. Instead of having a libretto written Turnage set his own adaptation of Stephen Berkoff's play Greek, setting the play pretty literally. This means that the opera is very dependent on the general mis-en-scene of Berkoff's original which was intended as a commentary on the strikes and riots in 1980's Britain under Margaret Thatcher. Berkoff re-set the story of Oedipus in the East End of London with the plague a clear analogy for strike-torn society. The whole thing could descend into bathos, with opera singers attempting to sing in East End accents and re-creating 1980's riots. But Turnage has written such a visceral score which takes you by the scruff of the neck and drags you with it for two hours, that it demands to be staged.

Here director Michael McCarthy and designer Simon Banham had clearly been exercised as to how you toured an opera which, though using only 18 instrumentalists, used so much percussion that the band would need a very large pit. During the riot scene, and at other times, the instrumentalists are required to put down their instruments and bang a percussive instrument. Music Theatre Wales's solution was to place the instrumental ensemble on stage, with the action taking place on a strip in front of the orchestra. Behind the orchestra was a huge stone wall on which were projected images, including archive ones of riots and such like.

Music Theatre Wales: Greek; l-r: Sally Silver (Mum), Marcus Farnsworth  (Eddy), Louise Winter (Wife). Photo: Clive Barda.
Music Theatre Wales: Greek
l-r: Sally Silver (Mum), Marcus Farnsworth  (Eddy), Louise Winter (Wife). Photo: Clive Barda.
Much use was made of period-style free-standing microphones; though these were used for amplification purposes in the Sphinx scene, there were many moments when they were merely props giving the impression that we were watching a semi-staged radio play. The cast were on-stage before the action started, looking at scripts and they tended to dress on stage. A rather arch, lets make a play right here concept. My other gripe about the staging was that McCarthy picked up on the more popular demotic elements in Turnage's score and echoed them in the staging, so that there was something worryingly end of the pier about some of the scenes. The Sphinxes were played as sluttish cabaret artists, with huge blond wigs (which Marcus Farnsworth's Eddy took off when killing the Sphinx). Despite my reservations, the production was full of little imaginative touches.

The violence of the drama was heavily toned done, with much of it done in slow motion (and with much use of a tomato sauce bottle to supply 'blood'). The problem was that it wasn't shocking and we must, I think, be shocked. The riot and the behaviour of the thuggish policeman should shock, and the random violence of Eddy's killing of the Cafe Manager should be appalling.

But what made the evening sizzle were the stunning performances from the cast. Marcus Farnsworth as Eddy erupted into the auditorium at the opening, effing and blinding at one of the ushers, and throughout the opera his performance as viscerally vivid. Farnsworth's estuary accent varied a bit (as did that of all the cast) and I think that someone should be daring and drop the charade. But Farnsworth clearly demonstrated his stagecraft in the way he balanced the more dramatic passages with those tricky moments when he addressed the audience directly. You believed in him and were both fascinated and appalled. And the ending, when Eddy says 'bollocks to all that' turns his back on his fate was simply brilliant.

Farnsworth was well supported by the remaining cast members, each of whom played a number of roles. Sally Silver was suitably Royle-family like as Eddy's Mum whilst making a hilariously sex obsessed waitress and a sluttish Sphinx. Louise Winter combined Eddy's sister with a Sphinx (again nicely slutty) and the Waitress who became Eddy's wife. Winter successfully made the awkward transition from being semi-comic sex/love object into tragic heroine. Gwion Thomas combines Eddy's Dad, the Cafe Manager (who of course turns out to be Eddy's real father) with the Chief of Police, which mean that Thomas had to move between Alf Garnett, a pleasant family man and a thug, which he did so brilliantly.

Having the orchestra on stage meant that balance was sometimes less than ideal, with the orchestra dominating too much. But they certainly became part of the action, too much so at times as the woman with the red hair was far to much of a visual accent. Where having the band on stage worked best was in the riot scenes when the whole scene erupted with violence and noise. The orchestra was on strong form and gave a gripping account of Turnage's score under Michael Rafferty's calm control.

I think that there is scope for a radical re-assessment of Turnage's opera, with a production less dependent on the original play's 1980's East End origins; after all much of the allegory is relevant to today. But, whatever my niggles about the production, the performance did Turnage's music full justice. This was a performance that really did take you by the scruff of the neck. And Farnsworth's Eddy was an astonishing creation.

The production has one final performance, at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester on 12 November 2013.

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