Combining Steven Berkoff’s brutally in-yer-face libretto with the gutsy music of Mark-Anthony Turnage was bound to be an explosive mix. The result was Greek, Turnage’s first opera (or, more accurately, Singspiel), first performed in 1988 and now given an inspiring new airing from Music Theatre Wales. Berkoff’s text was adapted from his own play, based on the Oedipus myth. His updating of the myth reveals a curious survival of the gor-blimey luv-a-duk world of the 1950’s East End within Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s. Eddy (a neat transliteration of Oedipus) was “spawned” to a cloth-capped couple (or so he thinks) and the world of bawdy pub songs and ere-we-go football chants. But the lure of the Thatcherite wine bar soon grows alongside his disgust at his raw environment and the ‘plague’ of contemporary British society. His early cry that “Maggie is our only hope” eventually leads to the ‘sphinx’ scene where Eddy strikes a pose as a strident hero figure clad in a St George’s flag while the twin harpies spin out their riddle.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

In one of several departures from the myth, his ‘parents’ are told of the eventual daddy-killing and mummy-marrying via a soothsayer and Eddy leaves them of his own accord, unaware of the prediction. Rather than a wine bar, it is a greasy spoon caf that he arrives at, ordering cheesecake and soon arguing with the owner who ends up stabbed. In a magical bit of Turnage writing, the café owner’s wife segues her touching lament for her dead husband into a love duet with Eddy, who is soon ensconced as the new proprietor of both the café and the café owner’s wife – who tells him the story of having lost her son when a Thames cruiser hits a mine, leaving only a teddy bear as a memento. We catch up with them ten years later when Eddy’s ‘parents’ visit and reveal that they were on a Thames cruiser when it hit a mine and found a lone young boy clutching a teddy bear. In an unexplained bit of child abduction, they toss the bear back into the waves and adopt the boy. And so the story unfolds, toward the inevitable eye-popping conclusion.

In a prophetic bit of programming, Music Theatre Wales started planning this show around the time of last year’s student riots, and the more recent, and less-defined, post-Tottenham riots added contemporary gloss to the tale. Director Michael Rafferty (who gave an excellent pre-concert talk) resisted the temptation to further the updating, although there were many little references to the present day, not least a mobile phone and the potential lethal use of a fire extinguisher. With minimal props and scene and costume changes integrated into the on-stage action, the direction is both slick and compelling. The 18-strong orchestra take up most of the Anvil’s stage area, with the action generally contained within a narrow strip front stage, giving a sense of immediacy and involvement for the audience. Three of the four singer/actors (the excellent trio of Sally Silver, Louise Winter and Gwion Thomas) take on multiple roles, while Marcus Farnsworth is Eddy, producing a performance of enormous power, vocally and theatrically. As well as having to produce innovative sounds from their own (woodwind dominated) instruments, the orchestra field an enormous additional range of sound-producing items ranging from football rattles to riot shields - they are an integral part of the action.

After an initial showing with their co-producers at Brecon’s Theatr Brycheiniog and Cheltenham, Music Theatre Wales are now touring Greek until November. It is a must-see.

*****