Greek ★★★★

Berkoff and Turnage’s take on the Oedipus myth retains all its power to shock

It’s been 30 years since the premiere of this gripping, foul-mouthed opera, its libretto by Steven Berkoff based on his powerful, scurrilous take on the Oedipus myth itself first performed in 1980. Director Jonathan Moore and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage collaborated on the adaptation and the trio make a tight team. Theirs is a perfect marriage of edgy muscular prose and unsettling disharmonies and rhythms.

As you’d expect from Berkoff, the action is set in the manors of the London he knows so well, coming home to the Arcola in the heart of Dalston. Centring on the archetypal dysfunctional family at the heart of the myth, his update retains all the shock value of the original story of the man who unwittingly fulfils the prophecy that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Berkoff adds some shocks of his own, when the story of Eddy – his latter-day Oedipus – ends with an unexpected twist and an inspired, if filthy, solution to the riddle of the Sphinx that I won’t spoil here.

26 Richard Morrison, Laura Woods and Edmund Danon in GREEK at Arcola Theatre - Photo_ Lidia Crisafulli.jpg

His long, punchy speeches, no expletive deleted (warning – his language is not for the faint-hearted), make ideal arias. Moore’s terrific quartet of performers, equally talented as opera singers in rich voice and actors with all the physicality Berkoff’s work demands, clearly relish the opportunities for attack. You can take that literally, for as they round on each other they challenge the audience too.

Tim Anderson conducts the 18-strong Kantant Ensemble centre stage, itself centring on its harpist. Turnage’s deployment of that often soothing instrument is typically startling, his writing for strings perhaps more reminiscent of Psycho than the Dying Swan. He gives his orchestra plenty to do, acting as a vocal chorus too, stamping their feet to provide percussion under Anderson’s vigorous baton.    

64 Philippa Boyle and Richard Morrison in GREEK at Arcola Theatre - Photo_ Lidia Crisafulli.jpg

Designer Baśka Wesołowska’s frames them in a loud neon square behind a simple thrust platform around which Berkoff’s Londoners stalk, thrown into relief by Matt Leventhall’s chiaroscuro lighting. News footage projections contextualise this update to include the London riots.

Edmund Danon’s extraordinary Eddy dominates the stage, wonderfully capturing our antihero’s macho recklessness, his violence and bigotry, his unbridled sexuality. He is perfectly matched by Laura Woods’ Wife, warm, sensual, with a sense of nobility. Woods doubles as Eddy’s ‘Sis’, a splendid double act with Philippa Boyle’s Mum, two generations of doughty East End gals, Boule wearing her pinnie as a matriarchal uniform. Together the pair create the tricksy Sphinx, the ruthless monster terrorising the city, whom Eddy must defeat. Richard Morrison’s hen-pecked Dad is entirely believable as the old block off which Eddy is apparently a chip!

Greek is a deliciously grubby jewel in the appropriately-named Grimeborn Festival – the Arcola’s annual answer to its posher sister opera festival, Glyndebourne.  

By Judi Herman

Photos by Lidia Crisafulli

Greek runs Wednesday 8 – Saturday 18 August. 7.30pm. £12-£26. Arcola Theatre, E8 3DL. 020 7503 1646.