by J Michael Walton
The picture, plac'd the busts between,
Adds to the thought much strength;
Wisdom and Wit are little seen,
But Folly's at full length.
(Jane Brereton, 'On Mr Nash's Picture at Full Length between the busts of Sir Isaac Newton and Mr Pope')
Tickets for the all-day performances of John Barton's Tantalus at the Barbican were sold out before the Box Office opened to the general public. Shadier means were needed - in this case infiltration of one of the Barbican's own exorbitantly-priced corporate packages - to get to see this marathon production whose controversial progress from Denver via Salford and Milton Keynes had ensured the notoriety that sells seats. And controversy there certainly had been, what with issues being very publicly aired about the lack of imagination of the British theatre which meant the production opening in America rather than Europe; about the treatment of classical myth; about budgets and grants; and, above all, about the rights of the author as opposed to those of the director. Those closest to the production might dispute how important such wrangling might be, but those who attended the final performance seemed well aware of the rumpus and, as a consequence, sensed that this was something they did not want to miss. The desire weakened markedly as the day wore on: as interval followed interval, the use of the term 'curate's egg' to describe the experience grew almost tangibly from shamefaced whisper on the stairs to collective mantra in the foyer. If the egg merits serious examination, so does the cooking.
The previous day the Department of Classics at King's College, London, had held a conference about the production. John Barton was present, as were some members of the cast, plus a number of interested and disinterested parties, mainly academics and students. The first set of papers barely mentioned either the plays or the production, concentrating instead on other aspects of Greek theatre. Then Jane Montgomery, the director of this autumn's Cambridge Greek play, stood up. She was especially concerned, she said, about the handling of choruses and, because of that, had the previous week met with the nine women who formed the chorus for Tantalus. In talking with them she had unearthed major, and apparently unequivocal, dissatisfaction about the entire rehearsal process they had undergone. Barton's row with Peter Hall had hardly been muted but this was the first time that the cast seemed to have broken ranks. Things livened up at this point and it did seem that many of those who had been directly or indirectly involved with the production had had reservations about it.
After the tea-break John Barton was interviewed by Michael Kustow, identified in the programme as Associate Producer for the RSC Tantalus tour. Barton responded to probes about his text being taken out of his hands with restraint and dignity. He discussed the genesis of the project over some twenty years and his reduction of the original from a mooted twenty plays. Some cutting he had known was inevitable and he had undertaken much of it himself. He could hardly conceal the disappointment he felt that such engagement counted for so little when the plays went into rehearsal with two directors and two more associate directors, one of whom is credited in the programme with being responsible for 'additional text'. Many of the major issues about play and treatment have been discussed elsewhere. There are two, though, which I would like to return to here, Barton's series of plays as we have them in the first published script, and the handling of the material itself, the translation from concept to execution. This will be, in other words a 'form and content' debate: it is important, as far as possible, to avoid confusing the one with the the other.
First the text. Barton is no stranger to the adaptation of work from the classic repertoire. His Wars of the Roses, directed by Peter Hall for the RSC in 1963, included the three plays of Shakespeare's Henry the Sixth, condensed into two, as well as Richard the Third. They also contained a great deal of John Barton, from short linking speeches to much longer sequences including the brilliant Council Board scene (Scene 26), capable of fooling all but the most assiduous of Shakespearean scholars.
Some seventeen years later, he turned to The Greeks, Ten Greek Plays given as a trilogy (sic), adapted by John Barton and Kenneth Cavander. This time Barton directed. The attempt to produce a sequential narrative about the Trojan Wars was less successful than had been The Wars of the Roses, if only because the idiosyncratic approaches of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with a dash of Barton via Homer thrown in, were reduced to a kind of all-purposes dramatic soup. In Tantalus Barton avoids such a miscegenation by opting for a set of plays which are an original saga rooted in the world of the Trojan War, "Ten New Plays on Greek Myths", as it is described on the front cover of the Oberon Books edition. He makes no claims to authenticity, nor is Tantalus in any way based, as had been The Greeks, on existing Greek tragedies. It should be appraised, then, as we might appraise the 'classical' plays of Seneca, Heywood, Racine, Sartre or Paulin.
Nor, in Halls', (senior and junior), production, is Tantalus an attempt to recreate any of the factors that made performance in classical Athens unique. The whole production is, whether or not faithful to the text as written, responsible only to itself. Nevertheless, several of Barton's plays, notably Iphigenia, Odysseus and Hermione do cover ground that is also treated by Euripides in Iphigenia in Aulis, Trojan Women and Andromache. A comparison of Barton's Hermione and Euripides' Andromache as independent plays may point to a different approach but does suggest that in the search for novelty Barton may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. The most striking bits of Euripides' Andromache, the blistering encounters between Hermione and Andromache and then between Peleus and Menelaus; the suddenness of the reversals of fortune; the savaging of the reputations of Menelaus and Orestes; the graphic messenger speech about the murder of Neoptolemus: all these have no place. Barton's text may well be rather better than the production script, but both suffer from a damaging lack of purpose. Similar criticisms could be raised against the other areas of narrative overlap. Some of the scenes, indeed some whole plays by Barton, with or without the 'additional text', are light-hearted, joky even. Others are unrelenting in their exposure of the barbarism that underpins the storyline. With nobody else's work to refer to a great deal does depend on Barton's original dramatic method. Too often this is found wanting. There is some extraordinarily banal dialogue:
Aegisthus: It won't go away
Clytemnestra: 'It'? What does 'it' mean? (Telephus)
Hermione: ...And don't treat me like a child.
Agamemnon: Then do not behave like one. (Iphigenia)
Andromache (on the suggestion that Hermione should marry Orestes: You're at least ten years older.
Hermione: Speak for yourself. (Hermione)
But it is more than that. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides function on numbers of different levels, instructive, intellectual, emotional. They work through parable, so that what may be appreciated at its literal level is underscored by layer upon layer of broader meaning. Questions have to be asked about the overall purpose of the Barton plays beyond simply filling in missing elements within the saga. There is much talk of justice by individual characters but little serious consideration of the concept of justice. All three Greek tragedians are exercised by the cruelty of the world and its vicissitudes; by the relationship between those with power and those without; by the balance between the fate we cannot foresee and the fate we bring on ourselves. A dissection of the human condition may be too much to expect in Tantalus but without it, and without any political dimension either, where are the conclusions or the resolutions to be found in the Oresteia, the Mahabarata, or even Barton/ Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses? The characters do not grow in wisdom or in stupidity. The stories do not uplift, reveal or surprise. There is no vision of the living, nor even of hell. All is arbitrary and expendable, not as life may be arbitrary or expendable, but shapelessly and seemingly without rationale.
The fact has to be faced that Barton, whatever his immense virtues as Shakespearean scholar, teacher and director, is not a maker of plays. Tantalus, far from being the many-roomed mansion of an Oresteia, a Philoctetes or a Trojan Women, is a folly. Folly, apart from its first meaning as 'a foolish action, mistake, idea etc.', is also described in Chambers as 'a building in the form of a castle, temple, etc., built to satisfy a fancy or conceit, often of an eccentric kind'. There is plenty in Tantalus that is bizarre, baroque or just plain whimsical, but little that adds up to a statement, a philosophy or even an attitude to the human condition. A sequence of plays of this kind of of scale and scope really needs to be anchored by some sort of unity of vision and purpose, a dramatic structure which offers progress as well as continuity, albeit achieved through surprise, shock, paradox, contradiction and contrast.
It may well be that the much-publicised dispute between author and directorate was a product of a lack of faith in the text. If the production itself were to paper over the shortcomings, then tampering on a major scale might have been not so much justified as unavoidable. In this case the production as production deserves even closer scrutiny than does the text.
It is probably most helpful to approach it through the externals, scenic effects, costume and masks. The settings by Dionysis Fotopoulos were admirable, an anachronistic clutter of jumble, jetsam and junk which splendidly created an environment for each and every scene: his costumes similarly made something unified out of a conglomeration of rags and patches: Achilles' Myrmidons looked genuinely antlike and were the most frightening thing in the production. Here was a sense of purpose as well as a sense of vision. Sumio Yoshi's lighting was less successful, relying too heavily on a couple of jerkily-operated follow-spots, but it was may have been directorial preference that demanded quite so many physically painful lightning effects. Much of the visual impact, though, was devalued by overkill. Neoptolemus, fresh from his rampage in Troy was so bloodied up that every inch and every orifice seemed designer-shambolic. Stage gore offers diminishing returns and the violence within the production was not so much staged as applied with a trowel. Brutality on stage looks facile the more it is exploited. Aeschylus et al knew that well enough.
Then there were the masks. Peter Hall's enthusiasm for masks is well known. He used them in The Oresteia, again in the Oedipus plays, and now in Tantalus. In Exposed by the Mask (New York, Theatre Communications Group, 2000) he makes a revealing remark: "Now, if one voice says a line and the other fourteen act the line, it appears that they have all spoken it. With a full mask, it is impossible to know who has spoken because no lips move" (p. 32). Such a statement does suggest a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of masked acting. The great mask practitioners and teachers from the commedia to LeCoq have valued the mask precisely because it offers communication through the whole body, of which the head is a part but only a part, no more nor less important than any other 'limb'. In a masked production it should always be possible to tell who is speaking because the speaker will be presenting the speaking character, not simply saying the lines. More, the listeners will be listening, and listening too is a physical discipline which helps identify the speaker. It was the lack of presentation that for many people rendered the masks of both The Oresteia and the Oedipus plays ineffectual and counterproductive.
If this kind of physical presentation - what the Greeks called cheironomia - is not taking place, then it is difficult to see what benefits the mask will offer in a modern production. Hall talks of "the most hysterical behaviour" being contained by the mask, but it was never the extremity of the emotion that dictated the use of the mask in Greek tragedy. It was simply the means by which the epic reciter abandoned his own persona and took on the character of another human being. The moment when epic became tragedy was the moment when reported speech became dramatic speech: when the bard put on the mask and made mimesis possible. That was where the actor was born. Terrible things happen in Greek tragedy but they are no worse than what happens in Renaissance tragedy, a great deal less so than in many of the Jacobethan horror comics, grand guignol or the plays of Bond or Kane, never mind in film. Tantalus does not actually call for masks, and it would be interesting to know if Barton thought it did.
Some of the actors seemed aware of the need for a different kind of acting if they were going to make the masks work. Annalee Jefferies 'played' the masks better than most, especially as Clytemnestra, but several of the others appeared hampered by the masks themselves. Thetis (Alyssa Bresnahan) had a mask which stood away from the lower part of her face so that when she raised her head the audience were conscious first of her moving chin. Most of the masks had been made from moulds of the original face, but the eyeholes were so large and the mouths so cut away around the lips that it was not always easy to see that they were masks at all. If it was possible to see who was speaking in Tantalus it was because you could see the lips moving. Others of the masks were much more all-encompassing, notably those of the men, Greg Hicks as Agamemnon, Priam and Menelaus; David Ryall as Peleus and Tyndareus; and Alan Dobie as Odysseus. These last two offered the most striking performances. They did so - and this is the real point - not by masked acting but by acting in the masks, or, rather, despite the masks. Ryall and Dobie are splendid, experienced and wholly reliable RSC actors who treated their masks as though they were simply some rather poor part of their costume which they must either ignore or make the audience forget. They got away with it. Others were not so fortunate and often appeared stranded, unsure how to stand, how to move, how to address the set, the props or their fellow actors.
This lack of certainty of purpose highlighted the real malaise within the whole production. There was an overall lack of theatrical shape here which betrayed the text; would betray any text whatever its merits. It was exemplified in the portrayal of Priam. Greg Hicks's Priam was at least eight feet tall. He walked on stilts and with sticks, a magnificent and frightening image who stalked the stage like something out of Mervyn Peake. But why? Nobody else was eight foot tall. Nobody referred to his being eight foot tall and, apart from the fact that everyone had to rally round to help him, when he wanted to get down on his knees, or up again, his being eight foot tall affected nothing and no one. Barton's text doesn't suggest that he be eight feet tall. Priam isn't even that formidable a character, or effective a king of Troy. Priam's appearance was arbitrary, not because the picture he conveyed was not powerful - it surely was and Hicks made the most of it - but because it was the only such image in the whole performance, a Taymor touch in a non-Taymor context. This simply was not a production of giants and grotesques. There were other instances, Orestes hitting himself on the head with a paddle, Cassandra offering a flower to someone in the front row of the audience, which suggested isolated and fractured moments from some different concept. It may be that here the multiple directorial input did its most damage. I have no means of knowing whose fancy Priam's stilts were, but a single director would, surely, have looked at the idea, worked with it maybe for a day or two, then discarded it.
There was too much which did not fit. The production was more shapeless than the play or plays whatever their flaws. It is all very well treating some of the situations as comic, others as more serious, but there was major difficulty for the audience in comprehending what dictated which. A character whose name (Odysseus) another character kept forgetting; the war described as a 'bellus interruptus' (sic); comic 'takes' on otherwise straightforward lines; Achilles greeting his sea-goddess mother with the lines 'Who are you? You're all wet?': is this burlesque? Is it cod-tragedy? What was the tone here? How did it marry with the Cassandra play where all the characters yelled their way through forty minutes unrelieved? Perhaps it was the after-effects of a cold but by that last night two of the actors were losing their voices. 'Rant!', announced one disgruntled member of the audience loudly as Play Seven came to an end.
There is every reason why a production of such length and scope should mingle moods and atmospheres but this was precisely what did not happen in this production. Whatever was done was done without shade or contrast. Where was the pacing, where was the dramatic rhythm? Where were the quiet moments amidst the savagery, the serious ones alongside the laughs? Maybe it was this monotony of tone that made Barton feel his work was being depreciated. If Barton's Tantalus is a folly, the production by Peter and Edward Hall was worse, a folie à deux, 'mental illness occurring simultaneously in two intimately related persons who share something of the elements of the illness, such as delusion'. Tantalus has serious flaws. The production cried out for a sensitive dramaturg in rehearsal to take a long view, rein in the excesses and suggest some sense of restraint or variety.
Reviews in both America and Britain have been mixed. Many of the British press were favourable finding, somewhat perplexingly, 'echoes of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Wilde and Freud in Barton's revisionist approach to the Iliad'' (The Guardian). This seems to be the kind of gobbledygook that afflicts newspaper critics when they find themselves faced with the classics and have to dredge down into their 'O' Level notes to come with anything to say. Classicists, on the other hand, are sometimes prone to praise any production that is based on the classics, however loosely, because it gives licence to them to justify their discipline in the battle to hold at bay the cultural theorists for whom Eminem is a poet more important than Virgil.
The first and, as far as I know, the only major article to date about the production, is Marianne McDonald's 'A Classical Soap Opera for the Cultural Elite: Tantalus in Denver', (Arion, Third Series 8.3 Boston University, Winter 2001, pp.90-114), reprinted above. This was critical from a number of perspectives, but especially those relating to purpose and theatrical impact. She took up the cudgels again when fronting the Open University e-mail seminar on the production. In response, Paul Cartledge, a defender of the production, whose contribution to the King's seminar amounted to rehearsing his own programme notes, had found her attack intemperate - 'shrill claims', he wrote- without managing to counter any of her major criticisms. Hardly, 'shrill' I would have thought to castigate a thirteen-hour performance with hardly a temperate moment in it. In-depth analysis of a production such as this may be rare but it is necessary, and it is necessary from other than entrenched positions. The revival of Didaskalia is all the more welcome for offering a proper forum for strong debate about classical theatre. There are more initiatives in the field than for many years but too many of them, in Britain and America especially, seem to have become exempt from the kind of intelligent criticism that would automatically be applied to work from the Renaissance, either because classicists are under-informed about theatre, or because theatre people are scared of the classics. Peter Hall has apparently been invited to direct the Bacchae at the National next spring. Would that the invitation had been to Katie Mitchell. It is devoutly to be hoped that Hall's foray into the world of Euripides is blessed with better advice than he seems to have received on this occasion.
There were a substantial number of things wrong with Tantalus which full houses and a the euphoria of survival after thirteen hours should not be allowed to conceal. And there are the broader issues here. They do include questioning a system which allows so much money to be spent on a single production, irrespective of its merits. They do include wondering about the place of the classics in the contemporary world if they are to be represented in such a way. They do include interrogating the rights of authors to have their purpose promoted, irrespective of the shortcomings of the original script. These issues, though, are not new, particularly in the world of opera where Sir Peter has spent much of his career. The concern that gives me most pause is that the practitioners themselves, and the critics who should be fighting to preserve worthwhile theatre, may be losing touch, not with their audiences so much as with the factors that make the theatre worth supporting in the first place. There is a lot of poor work around, especially in this field. It needs nailing.
The last word to Milton:
Hence, vain deluding joys,
The brood of Folly without father bred.
Prof. J Michael Walton
University of Hull
Hull HU6 7RX