“When you make a list of your own worst enemies, make sure you put your name at the top”. This maxim inspired Joe Hill-Gibbins, director of Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures’ co-production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, an irreverent and lively modern Cockney take on the story of Oedipus. This bold 2017 Edinburgh Festival production is making a welcome visit to Glasgow in a two-performance revival. We know this story doesn’t end well but the power of this performance is the balance of so much fun watching Eddy from Tufnell Park in North London follow destiny, killing his father and ‘bunking up’ with his mother, and the moment when Eddy’s final shocking realisation comes, packing a colossal and unexpected emotional punch.

Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn © Jane Hobson
Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn
© Jane Hobson

Turnage’s first opera, Greek is an adaptation of Steven Berkoff’s play was written at the end of the Thatcher years in a time of great political turbulence. In today’s Brexit Britain, sadly, it is as relevant as ever thirty years on from its UK debut at the Edinburgh Festival. In this version, Eddy, aged two, survives a boat accident hitting a mine in the Thames and is taken in by foster parents. Keen to escape pub culture and shocked by a street-fair’s fortune teller story, he runs away, getting beaten up in a police riot, ending up in a café where he has a fight with the owner, his real father, killing him. He starts a relationship with the waitress, the owner’s widow, and his real mother proving the prophecy correct.

The creative team, with Daisy Evans as revival director, was a key strength of this production. Johannes Schütz’s minimalist set at the front of the stage overhanging the orchestra pit was a simple revolving huge white wall, identical on the back with doorways left and right. It was an effective blank canvas for Matthew Richardson’s daylight bright lighting and Dick Straker’s amusing lurid projections. At several stages, one of the characters descended a staircase down to the orchestra to manipulate a live video, including a fry up with real added maggots, the images blown up to giant sickening proportions. Alex Lowde’s brilliantly colourful costumes and series of zany wigs vividly brought all the characters to life.   

Alex Otterburn (Eddy) © Jane Hobson
Alex Otterburn (Eddy)
© Jane Hobson

In Berkoff’s play, and the opera, everyone Eddy meets are played by just three people, so in a neat Oedipal twist, it is almost as if Eddy sees the family he is trying to escape coming back to haunt him in different guises. Alex Otterburn, one of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists last season, gave an outstanding performance as Eddy, a magnetic stage presence with a striking voice, arriving awkwardly onstage in his bright red tracksuit, eyeballing the audience in silent menace before launching into his story, exploding in a mixture of song and spoken word with generous lashings of street vernacular.

Susan Bullock and Henry Waddington were a brilliant couple of oldies, Eddy’s adopted parents. Allison Cook as Eddy’s wife (and mother) especially touching in her lament for her dead husband, sung stepping over and around his corpse. Bullock and Cook made a brilliant partnership as two bored waitresses in messily explicit conversations about recent sexual conquests, and also later as two spitting halves of the Sphinx tormenting Eddy with riddles.

The whole ensemble, on a sparse set, acted and sang like a well-oiled machine in a work by turns violent, vulgar and very amusing, yet surprisingly endearing and tender. As Eddy discovers what he has done, his now extended family crowd round him in physical support and forgiveness, but it is all too much, and Eddy plucks his eyes out... except in an epilogue he energetically bounces back in with a “Bollocks to all that!”, clearly unrepentant and ready to go all over again.

Susan Bullock and Allison Cook © Jane Hobson
Susan Bullock and Allison Cook
© Jane Hobson

The small twenty strong band of an eclectic mix of instruments under revival conductor and new music specialist Finnegan Downie Dear tackled the tumultuous and quirky score with infectious verve and enthusiasm. The police riot onstage (wickedly subversive PVC police costumes) moved into the pit with all the players stamping their feet loudly in unison, taking up percussion, the double bass thwacking a steel upright with a truncheon, one trombone laying into a thundersheet with a hammer, another hitting a riot shield and several players shouting expletives into the auditorium through loudhailers. There were some tender and lyrical moments too, but the firing-squad bursts of percussion as Eddy learns the truth were hauntingly chilling.

Thirty years on from Greek’s first performance, we can take our pick of a raft of contemporary references in politically uncertain times, its relevance not lost on the audience. Peppered as it is with football rattles, the final performance of this run was deservedly met with a wall of enthusiastic whistles and cheering.

****1