Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
December 5, 2018
When Mark-Anthony Turnage’s viscerally pugnacious first opera hit the stage in 1988 it’s fair to say it ruffled a few feathers. A setting of Greek, Steven Berkoff’s f-bomb laden 1980 indictment of Thatcherism, Turnage’s incorporation of football chants and his percussive use of police truncheons on real riot shields announced the presence of a new angry young man on the block.
Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore, Allison Cook and Alex Otterton in Scottish Opera’s Greek. Photo © Richard Termine
Thanks to a fine recording on Argo, those of us who missed the first run were quickly able to dive into this vulgar, witty, yet aggressively modernist score and recognise it for the miniature masterpiece that it is. Since then, its modest scale – a cast of four and orchestra of 20 – has perhaps worked against it. Too small for a sizeable opera house, contemporary opera companies often seek out newer or more local talent. Thankfully, Scottish Opera saw fit to give it a smart new staging last year, one which has wound up at BAM’s enterprisingly international Next Wave Festival, and with a first-rate cast and orchestra Greek is ready to provoke, entertain and offend all over again.
Berkoff’s approach is simple. He takes the classic Oedipus story as famously recounted by Sophocles and relocates it slap bang in the heart of London during the ‘get rich quick and fuck the rest’ heyday of prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Eddy has been “spawned” as he so memorably puts it in Tufnall Park. “That’s no more than a stone’s throw from the Angel, a monkey’s fart from Tottenham or a bolt of phlegm from Stamford Hill,” he informs us. Restless and ambitious, he hates the “arseholes” down the corner pub and yearns for the pretensions of the wine bar set.
Andrew Shore, Alex Otterton, Allison Cook and Susan Bullock in Greek. Photo © Richard Termine
When his mum and dad tell him a tale about how a seaside fortune teller once told them he’d kill his pa and “have a bunk up” with his ma, Eddy takes the opportunity to leave home for better things. London, however, is in the grip of a plague – here a metaphor for political violence as well as the then topical AIDS epidemic – and the young man is soon caught up in a riot. Taking refuge in a “caff” he gets into a fight with and kills the owner before falling for and marrying his widow. When mum and dad turn up and drop the bombshell that Eddy was never theirs, well, you can guess the rest.
In Joe Hill-Gibbins sharply-observed production, the drama plays out against Johannes Schütz’s simple revolving white wall, all very starkly Greek and deftly lit by Matthew Richardson. Whenever we tire of white, a clever use of real-time projections sees the wall spattered with everything from plastic toy soldiers to baked beans – ah, the classic English breakfast – and real (yes, real) maggots – something of a first for this theatre goer!
Scottish Opera’s Greek at BAM. Photo © Richard Termine
Some brilliant fast changes enable the hard-working cast to play an array of leery drunks, vicious policemen, a man-eating sphynx (here, two women for the price of one) as well as the four main protagonists. Alex Lowde’s bold and beautiful costumes are a fabulous riot of tacky plastic and PVC complete with bad hair, short skirts, pink leggings, garish tracksuits and saggy vests.
With his twisted smile and never-quite-trustworthy smarts, Alex Otterburn makes the perfect Eddy. His powerful baritone rises to the considerable challenges of Turnage’s score, nailing top notes with never a hint of discomfort. But he’s also a fine actor, able to deliver spoken text – not always an opera singer’s forte – with a rare intelligence. He captures nicely Eddy’s path from uncertainty to overweening confidence, and you really believe in his ultimate crisis: does incest demand he put out his own eyes, or does he say, “bollocks to all that”?
Alex Otterton as Eddy in Greek. Photo © Richard Termine
He’s finely matched by Allison Cook – the ENO’s most recent Salome – as his wife/mother who also doubles as Eddy’s sister and one half of the sphynx. A fine soprano with excellent diction, she manages to make you care in the extended ‘love’ duets, which is no mean feat. She’s also a lot of fun in any number of comic cameos.
Susan Bullock, last seen as Brünnhilde in the 2013 Melbourne Ring but unrecognisable here, plays Eddy’s wretchedly downtrodden mum, her spotty apron an eternal “flag of womanhood”. She’s a hoot, and has great fun as the other half of the panting, hissing and spitting sphynx, but she also carries off Mum with a welcome pathos. Likewise, Andrew Shore’s Dad, a mountain of idleness in dirty vest and braces. Still able to pack a punch vocally, he makes hideous hulks of the ghastly café manager and sadistic police chief.
Scottish Opera’s Greek at BAM. Photo © Richard Termine
The excellent orchestra go above and beyond the call of duty being required at times to shout, stamp, blow whistles and batter away on riot shields and dustbin lids. Turnage’s score is fiendishly complex, and while it thrives on violence and the dirty sounds of a down-at-heel humanity, he can also create oases of great beauty such as the poignant duet for oboe and harp as Eddy leaves home, or the dazzling introduction to the sphinx, all louche saxophones, slinky bass clarinet, muted brass and high-hat cymbal. Stuart Stratford has a firm hand on tiller and clearly knows the score backwards.
Turnage would go on to write the moving WWI opera The Silver Tassie and the irreverent Anna Nicole, but rarely has he hit the nail on the head with the visceral energy of this fizzingly angry early work. Don’t be put off by all that effing and blinding, go see Greek.
Greek is at Brooklyn Academy of Music until December 9