At half its original length Tantulus is still twelve hours too longby Herb Greer / March 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
John barton is a gifted theatrical anthologist. His assemblage of Shakespeare history plays, The Wars of the Roses, was justly and highly praised, as were other such projects, like The Hollow Crown and The Greeks, which Peter Hall characterised as “a paste-up of Sophocles, Homer, Euripides and Barton.” Because, according to Hall, the latter anthology “worked,” he encouraged Barton to take the Greek myths and give them, so to speak, his own “spin.” The result is Tantalus, written to fill two days and (to Barton’s irritation) reduced by Hall to one-a total of nine plays spread over some 12 and three-quarter hours. The narrative core of this collage is the Trojan war and its consequences. After a premiere at the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts, Tantalus is touring Britain and Europe. I caught up with it at Manchester’s Lowry Centre, and was surprised. The critics have generally treated this show with respect as a modern dramatic account of the Trojan war, and I cannot imagine why. Barton, for all his gifts, has made a hash of it. His language, except where it is borrowed from translations of Euripides and other greats, is flat and thoroughly suburban. His dramaturgy is fumbled. The narrative line lacks cogency, jerking this way and that. There are near-interminable stretches of rhetoric and unnecessary squabbling. The presentation of characters is often overblown without being heroic: Only Iphigenia at Aulis worked really well, gripping the audience with justification of her own death-a speech borrowed, I suspect, from Euripides. Even this was a cheat, since Barton uses the version of the myth in which she, like Isaac, is given an animal substitute for sacrifice at the last minute. And the use of masks, like the dropping of scraps of classical Greek into the dialogue and background, is mere decoration, good for a bit of mood and little else. The worst violence, however, was done to the mythology itself. The gods and their myths were used to simplify and make sense of the world’s chaos. Today we have science for that, which opens an unbridgeable gap between the ancients and our own sensibility. The experience of staring death in the face still carries a charge, which is why Iphigenia’s scene works. For the rest, Barton has attempted to close the gap, first by a modern Greek island setting with a beach-bum narrator who segues the action into Mycenaean times; then by attributing flagrantly anachronistic anti-war sentiments to ancient Greek heroes, set into “verse” which sounds like the leader columns and feature pages of the Guardian chopped up into lines. The result is the Trojan war in luvvie-land. On the face of it this should have been a worthy enterprise; but it needed a talent on the scale of Shakespeare or-stepping down several levels into our own time-the wit and feeling for the English language found here and there in Tom Stoppard. This might, at a stretch, have given some significance to the questions this epic is supposed to address: “Who is to blame?” “What is the truth of it?” and “Could it have been otherwise?” As it is, the first is lost in a morass of commonplace homiletic, the second is irrelevant, and the third-addressed by the anachronistic peacenik scruples foisted on Menelaus and Odysseus-tails off into pointlessness. There are large quantities of information about Greek mythology and the Trojan war in this long day’s journey into the past; but for all the glitter, flash and gloss of Peter and Edward Hall’s production, it ends finally as a dogged and protracted exercise in failed cultural uplift. The failure lies in its vulgarity, its pretentiousness, and at the most basic level, the writer’s slipshod control of his material. How much Peter Hall’s cutting is to blame for this I cannot say. Barton has disclaimed this version, but I doubt that another day’s length would improve it much. All that said, there were real heroes in this bloody battle. I mean the Anglo-American cast-especially Alan Dobie, Greg Hicks, Alyssa Bresnahan, Robert Petkoff, David Ryall, and Mia Yoo among the principals, performing above and beyond the call of duty. If the chorus seemed almost always at a loss, it was not their fault. If there were a theatrical award for bravery against hopeless odds, the cast should be given it, one and all. I salute them for their valiant efforts at flogging a dead Trojan horse.