ALCESTIS
Viaduct Theatre, Dean Clough, Halifax/touring
Opened 18 September, 2000

The late Ted Hughes' last major composition Alcestis, now receiving its premiere at Halifax prior to a national tour including London's Soho Theatre, is more than a simple translation of Euripides. Where the Greek original implicitly condemns Admetos, king of Thessaly, for allowing his wife Alcestis to die in his appointed place, Hughes' Admetos is squarely aware of his dilemma, torn between his immense love of Alcestis and his duty to maintain the supernaturally granted prosperity of his kingdom. When he defends himself from the excoriation of his father, he is more than a mere prig, even if less than a statesman; indeed, in Andrew Cryer's performance, Admetos seems less reprehensible than simply immature, unable to come to terms with either side of the equation.

But Hughes moves further still from Euripides. Although his verse in the matter of Alcestis' death is characteristically granite and just-larger-than-human-sized, he intersperses this with comic treatment of the inopportune arrival of Heracles midway through his labours, and the hero's drunken revelling when Admetos keeps secret the fact that the house is in mourning for Alcestis. We are presented with a burlesque not only of those labours he has already performed, but also thanks to claims of prophecy, dreams and the like of those to come. We are even transported in time and place to witness his freeing of Prometheus. This is all very well to establish Heracles' credentials for his wrestling with Death to return Alcestis to the living, and it sits in tune with the varying tone of Euripides' original (which was first performed in the ceremonial slot usually reserved for a rumbustious satyr-play), but it makes for oscillations bizarre to modern sensibility.

Barrie Rutter's production for Northern Broadsides is in tune with the language and spirit of Hughes' verse. The most conspicuously awkward performances are from Rutter himself as the enslaved Apollo in an introductory role (consciously eschewing any attempt at grandly divine characterisation) and Joanne Thirsk as Alcestis, who although given one or two wonderful lines sinking on to her death-bed, she declares, "The strength I had is all gone into weight" is really called upon by the text to do little more than roll her eyes and expire. David Hounslow rollicks as Heracles, and hits a well-judged pitch in the final phase as the blunt hero becomes earnestly solicitous of his host Admetos' welfare. Andy Wear makes a convincing character out of scant material as the servant whose respect for the deceased Alcestis makes him unable to tolerate Heracles' antics.

Amid the bare stone of the Viaduct theatre beneath the Dean Clough Mills complex (a Graeco-Klimt backdrop, the only real set, falls to the ground at Alcestis' death), the play's setting also reflects the rocky seeming-simplicity of Hughes' verse. It is a fitting place and way in which to pay one's last respects to the poet.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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