Denver Performing Arts Centre
Opened 21 October, 2000

There are a handful of artworks for which the process of creation and realisation eerily mirrors their actual content. Foremost amongst these is Apocalypse Now, as portrayed in Eleanor Coppola's documentary film footage. Tantalus is also of this stripe.

The events narrated in John Barton's massive play cycle about the Trojan War take place largely within a seventeen-year period, mirroring the 17 years it has taken Barton to write the work – an original work, not a patchwork of adaptations and translations of ancient Greek texts. Just as characters die or vanish from the narrative, so the six-month rehearsal period has seen the departure of actors and even a director; as comrades and clans fall out, so the fifty-year-long friendship between Barton and his old Royal Shakespeare Company compadre Sir Peter Hall, who is director-in-chief (so to speak) of this production, have apparently taken a decidedly chilly turn. The script often presents two or more variants of the same story – how Cassandra obtained the gift of prophecy, for example, or whether the real Helen was ever in Troy at all – without claiming to reconcile or synthesize them, but allows us to make our own choice; similarly, there is no explanation of how much of the material we see on stage in nine hour-long chunks is from Barton's "canonical" but apparently theatrically imperfect text and how much has been edited or added by production dramaturg Colin Teevan. Perhaps most tellingly, just as the gods never physically appear onstage here, so at the world première in Denver of this supposed culmination of Barton's creative life's work, the author himself was – for whatever reason – conspicuously absent.

At times the whispers and off-the-record remarks have threatened to dwarf even the obvious vastness of the undertaking. Tantalus was simply too huge for the RSC to take on until board member Donald Seawell offered a budget of the order of $10 million and the facilities of his arts complex in Colorado for rehearsal and premiere prior to an international tour. There was too much of it, even trimmed as it was, for Peter Hall to direct alone, hence the enlistment of his son Edward (and, in the initial stages, Mick Gordon). In the years between first being mooted and its final unveiling, Tantalus took on a status as one of the grands projets of live art in this generation.

After all the kerfuffle, both official and rumoured, does it then turn out to be worthwhile? The answer is a considered, but not quite a resounding, yes. One watches it differently from most other theatre: partly its aspect as a series of roughly hour-long episodes makes it feel, intentionally, more like a soap opera (or, more accurately, an episodic screen drama such as Edgar Reitz's Heimat) than "a play". Moreover, such theatrical marathons engender a sense of community among the audience: we feel bound together by the magnitude of what we have witnessed, but we also acquire a deep sense that we have not just witnessed but actually been through such events together with the characters.

And what events they are – from the birth of the idea that the Greeks (or the peoples of "the West", as they are only ever called here) might be united into a single nation, through the Trojan war itself, through its grim aftermath including the murder of Odysseus's son Pyrrhus and the trial of Helen. (Interestingly, however, the events of the Oresteia are frequently mentioned but never directly portrayed.). Sometimes the portrayals are quite harrowing, as with the tale of the Trojan Women told over two plays; sometimes things fall worryingly light, as (in my view) with the play immediately following, which included an unsettling moment in which the audience laughed repeatedly at what was in effect an episode of grand mal epilepsy suffered by Orestes.

The most impressive single thread running through the staging is that of humour. Seeing how much the Halls have discreetly camped up a number of moments, we can perhaps infer that one of the problems with the script as originally fashioned by Barton may have been humourlessness. The Anglo-American cast are superbly accomplished at wringing bathos out of lines; in particular, David Ryall's portrayals of Tyndareus (father of Clytemnestra) and Peleus (father of Achilles) are fine comic turns without destroying the serious content, and Greg Hicks as Agamemnon, Priam and Menelaus is unparalleled at what one member of the creative team dubbed "the RSC pause", that beautiful twist of timing whereby an apparently straight-delivered line acquired an ironic hilarity.

Dionysis Fotopoulos's designs are impressive both as stage images (including an economical yet potent Trojan Horse) and in terms of variety and completeness, given that in the course of a single-day presentation most of the sets have to be turned around within fifteen minutes. Hall has once again used masks, but by making them translucent has secured the best of both worlds: ritual formality and still visible facial expressiveness. In such a context, too, the simple act of unmasking becomes a major coup.

As with many huge stage works, the final moments see a resolution of thematic concerns rather than any narrative thread. The themes of human relationships to abstract concepts such as justice, truth and the like shine consistently through; the gods here are plainly personifications both of the absolutism of such values and of the terrible inconsistency when such absolutes come into conflict one with another. There is little sense of the numinous, to be sure, but Barton's point is that our lot as mortals is inescapable uncertainty: at any point, the rock suspended above Tantalus's head may crash down on us all. Therein lies one last parallel: for all the rumoured strife and discomfort, no such catastrophe has plummeted on to Hall's production either – it makes its way in the world honourably and thoughtfully, as should we all.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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