Turnage’s Greek Retains its ‘Angry Young Man’ Image

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek: A production by The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble with Michael Rafferty (Conductor) and directed by Michael McCarthy at the Birmingham Town Hall, 5.10.2013 (GR)

Marcus Farsworth (baritone), Eddy
Sally Silver (soprano),Eddy’s Mum/Waitress/First Sphinx
Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano),Eddy’s Sister/Waitress/Second Sphinx
Gion Thomas (baritone),Eddy’s Dad/Café manager/Chief of Police

Maggie Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s polarised much of the UK; depending upon which side of the political fence you sat, there was a huge love/hate divide. One excellent means of providing commentary on such times is through opera and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek is a pithy portrayal of the social unrest at that time, or ‘plague’ as Turnage termed it. Premiered in 1988 when he was twenty-seven, the English composer had grown up in the East End of London and no doubt witnessed some of the turbulence of the decade and felt the need to express it on the musical theatre stage. And what an impact his composition made! The enterprising Music Theatre Wales group came up with their version in 2011 at Brecon and this current revival run reached Birmingham Town Hall on Oct 5th for the second in this current series. (The first was on Oct 1st in Cardiff, reviewed on this site by Paul Corfield Godfrey, which may be read in conjunction with this.)

The history of Greek began with playwright Steven Berkoff’s Oedipus, his individualised update of the Sophocles classic, combining his own mixture of dumbed-down Shakespeare and gutter language. Typical was his use of the Chorus aspect of Greek tragedy: his commenting protagonists were portrayed as a motley collection of flat-capped workingmen. From straight theatre, Turnage asked Jonathan Moore to take extracts and adapt them into a libretto for his opera project. Personally I thought Turnage manufactured a modern version of Singspiel, a assortment of the spoken word, Sprechgesang and positively lyrical numbers. Two years after its first showing, a DVD was cut featuring the original cast, illustrating how successful the work could be represented on the small screen. It was interesting therefore to see what Michael McCarthy and MTW had done with it.

Their interpretation was essentially minimalist. With the orchestra occupying the majority of the BirminghamTown Hall stage, the space to simulate the narrative was naturally limited, but nevertheless I was disappointed with what the production team did with it. The visuals presented were in complete contrast to what Daniel Slater had done at last week’s concert performance of Peter Grimes (Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, 26.9.13, my review this site). However McCarthy did include some interesting moments. The images projected onto the back screen were I thought helpful, substantiating certain points in the story: for instance an Egyptian Sphinx, representative of the sphinxes which Eddy set out with cape and sword to destroy and thereby rid the country of its debilitating ‘plague’. With such garb, did Eddy assume the role of a financial white knight? And when Eddy realised that he was the original Mother F*#cker, time stood still for all the four main characters, moving themselves and their chairs around in slow motion – hardly original, but fitting at that point.

Paring the props and action down to a minimum allowed Turnage’s music to receive maximum focus. His score is worthy of this and still sounds like that of an 80s angry young man. It also illustrated the influences behind this composer’s style: the jazz idiom of Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus, the complexity of Stravinsky, the vocal writing prowess of Britten, the teachings of Henze and Knussen, all exploited in Greek could be detected. Turnage’s eclectic mix went down well with an enthusiastic audience, many no doubt harping back to the days when he was Composer in Residence with Simon Rattle and the CBSO during 1989-93. The eighteen man ensemble of MTW under the direction of Michael Rafferty were as impassioned as any army of football fans, symbolically represented by the Union Jack on the back of the conductor’s podium. The woodwind section were particularly busy and made some incredible sounds; at appropriate moments the resonances from the wailing piccolo of Kathryn Thomas and the piercing soprano saxophone of Kyle Horch reached alarming levels. It was hard to believe from the programme that there was but a single percussionist, namely Julian Warburton, such were the deafening noises that accompanied the riots of Act I, when the shit hits the fan. And when Eddy’s Dad respectfully removed his hat to tell his sorry tale of how they came by their ‘son’ in Act II, the viola break of Yuko Inoue brought true sadness to the moment.

The singers were also in fine voice. Marcus Farnsworth was a highly convincing

Eddy – his uncouth Bolshie of Act I was worthy of an ASBO (anti-social behaviour order imposed in UK), while in Act II ten years later his character had begun to attract certain sympathy. But many of his lines escaped me and I found the partial use of a monitor rather distracting. I wondered whether he overdid the Cockney element, particularly in the opening scene as he described his London roots a monkey’s fart from Tottenham. Yet attempting to raise his profile by moving from his local to a wine bar, his rendition of look’s like she just been minted, as he ogled the waitress came across well. Likewise in the café his falsetto cheesecake, while the two waitresses graphically described their experiences of the night before, hit the right note. Later, having killed a café manager in a fight (although one splash of ketchup does not a beating make) his wife’s lament Who to wait for at night from Louise Winter was touching enough to melt Eddy and the audience’s heart. But with lines such as Whose vomit will I clean from the pillow and but you look so familiar to me, the drama retained its earthiness and sense of Oedipean tragedy, the latter echoed by the piano chords of Clive Williamson. Their joint grief provided its own aphrodisiac and brought a noticeable hush throughout the hall. It seemed an anticlimax to me when the earlier breakfast scene of Mum and Dad (Sally Silver and Gwion Thomas) was reprised. I thought Thomas might have been even more of a slob and the pair’s music hall duet that closed Act I equally lacked punch.

Ten years on (Thatcher ruled for eleven) the discordant orchestral utterances said the ‘plague’ was still widespread. Eddy and his missus have prospered however and they reminisced in a genuine love duet: against all the odds the couple were still very much in love and their poignant rendition of Ten years have come proved it. Farnsworth had lost his belligerence and his baritone singing voice caressed Winter – the mezzo responding in kind with her Come and gone. But as they got more intimate I thought Turnage’s use of the double entendres were this time unnecessary. I always find it a bit disconcerting when performers change their personae in full view of the audience. This was the case when Silver and Winter donned their blond wigs to represent the two-headed monster Sphinx. Vocally however their misandristic welcome for Eddy was top rate: believing that man himself was the ‘plague’ they resembled a couple of cats squalling their abuse in Louse, you pollute the earth. Eddy solves the riddle of course but I was amazed that his answer was so pat, surely a moment for a dramatic pause. His symbolic removal of the blond wigs was to my mind acceptable. I loved the reception his family gave Eddy on his return including the Nice one, Eddy, Nice one, Son, a reference I thought to the footballer who played for Eddy’s local team Tottenham Hotspur 1964-76 and started the terraces cult chant Nice one Cyril (Is Turnage a Spurs fan?). Farnsworth handled the trauma of Oh! Poor Eddy well, sliding naturally into a wonderful high pitched We only love. All four voices combined beautifully in the quartet It doesn’t matter, perhaps the most moving musical point in the whole show, reaching a dramatic climax along with Turnage’s moving accompaniment. It only remained for a couple more squirts of ketchup as Eddy contemplated the ultimate Oedipus fate, but his reaction was a typical Bollocks to all that.

Despite any reservations of mine this was a highly enjoyable evening and one to see if you can.

Geoff Read