23 Oct 2013

Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek

After the bitter disappointment of

Anna Nicole, came this reminder — both sad and hopeful- that Mark-Anthony Turnage was once capable of writing urgent, exciting music theatre. Indeed, from this composer I have heard nothing finer, perhaps nothing to match, this, his first opera, to Steven Berkoff’s libretto after his own Oedipal play, Greek. Adverse circumstances notwithstanding, this performance and production from Music Theatre Wales offered everything one could reasonably hope for, and more. Marcus Farnsworth, who had been ailing on the first night, had awoken with no voice, to be replaced by an heroic combination of the flown-in-from-Berlin-that-afternoon Alastair Shelton-Smith to sing the part on stage and Michael McCarthy to act, to mime the sung passages, and to deliver the spoken text. If anything, the practice added to the feeling of alienation, social and theatrical, but it would have come to nothing without such committed performances. From the word go, or rather a somewhat bluer word than that, when McCarthy hastened toward the stage, scarily impersonating an irate member of the audience hurling abuse at the audience, he inhabited the role visually and gesturally. His own production frames the performance convincingly, offering a return into the audience as Eddy is rejected by his family, those who supposedly love him unable to stomach his desire to ‘climb back inside my mum’. Shelton-Smith’s assuredly protean yet deeply felt vocal performance fully deserved the rapturous reception it received from audience and fellow cast-members alike, and would have done so even if it had not been for the particular circumstances.

But the other performances were equally assured. Sally Silver and Louise Winter proved as versatile in vocal as in acting terms, their combination as lesbian separatist sphinx being sleazy and savagely humorous in equal measure. Gwion Thomas was just as impressive in the other male roles, the sad would-be patriarch as much as the brutal police chief. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under Michael Rafferty played Turnage’s score as to the manner born: angry and soulful, biting and tender, urgent and yet offering oases for reflection. Whether called upon to play in conventional terms, to shout, to stamp, or even to strike a pose, there could be no gainsaying the level of artistry on offer from players and conductor alike.

McCarthy’s production places the work firmly in the tradition of music theatre — doubtless partly out of necessity, but, unlike in the opera, virtue certainly arises out of fate. Props are minimal but used to full effect, the cast in proper post-Brechtian fashion undertaking the stage business too. Video projections of key words, not least Berkoff’s inevitable ‘Motherfucker’, heightens both drama and alienation. But perhaps the principal virtue is that of allowing the anger of Berkoff and Turnage’s drama to unfold, within an intelligent yet far from attention-seeking frame. The transposition of the Oedipus myth to 1980s London now seems both of its time and yet relevant to ours. It works as a far more daring version of the original EastEnders might have done, yet with injection of magic realism. Both Berkoff’s ear for language — the ability to forge a stylised ‘vernacular’, which yet can occasionally shift into knowingly would-be Shakespearean poetry — and Turnage’s response and intensification, whether his pounding protest rhythms or the jazzy seduction of his beloved saxophone, work just as McCarthy’s staging does: they grip and yet they will also, if not always, distance. Above all, one continues to feel and indeed to reiterate the anger felt by outcasts in the brutal Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Incest offers not only its own story, but stands or can come to stand also for other forms of social and sexual exclusion. Hearing of the plague, one can think of it as Thatcherism and the ignorant, hypocritical right-wing populism that continues to infest political discourse, or one can turn it round and view it as the guardians of morality most certainly would have done at the time of the 1988 premiere, as the fruits of sexual ‘deviance’: the tragedy of HIV/AIDS.

That space to think, to interpret is not the least of the work’s virtues, fully realised in performance. Its musical lineage is distinguished; on this occasion, those coming to mind included Stravinsky, Andriessen, magical shards of Knussen, and, alongside the music theatre of the Manchester School, that of Henze too, especially the angry social protest of Natascha Ungeheuer. But it is its own work, now with its own performance tradition, of which Music Theatre Wales’s contribution is heartily to be welcomed.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Eddy: Alastair Shelton-Smith/Michael McCarthy; Eddy’s Mum/Waitress/Sphinx: Sally Silver; Eddy’s Sister/Waitress who becomes Eddy’s Wife/Sphinx: Louise Winter; Dad/CafĂ© Manager/Chief of Police: Gwion Thomas. Director: Michael McCarthy; Designs: Simon Banham; Lighting: Ace McCarron, Jon Turtle. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 22 October 2013.