Tantalus is a massive re-writing of Greek myths by John Barton who cleverly pins his masterpiece with a single phrase - "the epic cycle of the lost bits".
The full version consists of ten plays covering relationships between the house of Tantalus, the house of Peleus and the royal house of Troy. This joint production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Centre for the Performing Arts is heavily cut down from Barton's original.
Sir Peter Hall and his son Edward have worked together to produce Tantalus in some nine hours of theatre with the nine separate plays split into three parts. These can be seen at the Barbican on what are known as Tantalus all-dayers for which the audience must be in their seats by 10 o'clock in the morning. Alternatively, it is possible to see the three parts separately.
The Barbican has really gone for Tantalus in a big way as it is also running a full Tantalus festival with films, radio programming and a Myths and Monsters weekend for all of the family.
The thought of a nine-hour epic based on Greek mythology can be somewhat daunting. However, the Halls have worked to ensure that this should not be the case. They have used all kinds of interesting theatrical devices to lighten the atmosphere and have ensured that humour leavens the tragedy.
The settings and special effects are all that one has come to expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Thunder and Lightning can never have been rendered more successfully on stage and the musical accompaniment by Mick Sands always seems right.
Part 1: Prologue
The start of this play is a real surprise. The curtain rises on nine female American students on a sandy beach. They are lazing around in bikinis and sarongs relaxing and having a good time. The initial reaction is to wonder whether you have drifted into the wrong theatre. The excellent David Ryall then appears on stage selling mythological dolls and relating tales.
It turns out that these Americans are students who have had a very decent classical education. They are our chorus and keep the play moving at a good pace.
During these plays, many of the actors take on multiple parts and this gives them a chance to demonstrate their skills. David Ryall soon drops into a W.C.Fields impression, as he becomes King Peleus and starts relating the story of Leda and the Swan.
This play is in a long storytelling tradition and much of the action takes place off stage. In many cases, there is a narrator who tells stories which are illustrated by one or two actors always in masks representing the characters.
This is assisted by the chorus and often, they are forced to explain their own views and understanding of what is happening. This is like a quiz (exam) to them and helps the audience to understand and recall the mythology which perhaps has been lost to some in the mists of time, if it was ever found in the first place.
There is great narrative speed and while the language has often been modernised and americanised it is still beautifully written and the tales are timeless.
Barton and the Halls appear to believe in using many short scenes that allow them to demonstrate many stories in a short time. The main tale in this part relates to Achilles, dipped in immortal water by his mother and subsequently brought up by bears. It also quickly becomes apparent that Greek mythology can be measured by the count of rapes that take place. This is not a nice world.
This prologue ends with a really weird scene where Achilles and his warriors start a dance. Achilles manages to look like something of a hero but the warriors strangely look like a boy band in spiky helmets.
This play is set just before the commencement of the Trojan Wars and takes place in the home of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Greg Hicks as the former shows a constant dry sense of humour and an interesting American accent. He is almost like Star Trek's Spock transformed to Mycenae. He and his wife Clytemnestra, played by Annalee Jefferies, both play their parts superbly as tragedy strikes.
This comes in the form of Telephus, played once again by Ryall. It transpires that this king who has been wounded by Achilles with a poisoned spear which carried a highly contagious disease. He manages to spread this to everybody who touches him whether to help or to hurt.
There is some high comedy as we hear of the first attempt of the fleet to attack Troy. As a result of Achilles' complete inability to read a map or navigate, they don't get within a few hundred miles of their target.
This play also introduces us to the children of this house of Tantalus. These include a wonderfully sulky, spoilt brat, teenaged Electra and Iphigenia, her seemingly identical sister. This is inevitable in that Mia Yoo plays both in the same mask.
The third play is the tale of this heroine. Our American students demand to know the truth about Helen and Paris and this is the start of the story of the attack on Troy.
The Gods have foretold that it will be necessary to sacrifice Iphigenia in order for the fleet to be successful. Agamemnon has been told by the Goddess Artemis that he must carry out this sacrifice of his daughter and clearly this leaves him with an impossible decision.
Like Abraham, Agamemnon must decide whether to give up his beloved child or his nation's conquest. This is an impossible decision and Greg Hicks as Agamemnon with Annalee Jefferies as Clytemnestra work around the moral and politic philosophy very movingly. Ultimately, the decision is taken out of their hands by the heroine herself. The first part therefore ends with the Trojan Wars unavoidable.
Part 2: Neoptolemus
The eponymous figure in this part of the play but by no means the hero is Neoptolemus or, as he is also known, Pyrrhus. This is very much a consolidating play as we pick up on the news of the 10-year period that has passed since the end of the last play.
Neoptolemus is the young son of Achilles and he is desperate to go to war on Troy. Really though this play is the story of the battle for power between the warlike Odysseus played Alan Dobey and the much weaker pacifist, Agamemnon.
Odysseus would like to use a horse made of wood to infiltrate Troy. Agamemnon wishes to use diplomatic means to rescue Helen. We see the verbal fight raging backwards and forwards but ultimately, Odysseus is only too happy to use underhand tricks to ensure that he gets his own way. He is a supreme verbal manipulator and manages to persuade the teenage Pyrrhus that the best way that he can assist in the battle is by dressing as a woman and fooling the Trojans.
A particular problem for Odysseus is that Pyrrhus is like George Washington, unable to tell a lie. He therefore has to be carefully trained to lie truthfully by his mentor and his grandfather Peleus so that he will be able to do what is required of him by his country.
This play ends with our American student chorus deciding to don masks and enter the story themselves. This is the equivalent to going to a Trojan War theme park and allowing yourself to become a victim of war. They will soon pay very dearly for this.
As this play starts, we have entered the walls of Troy.
We see a seven-foot high marble bust with the wonderful Cassandra (played by Alyssa Bresnahan) sitting on top. She is always doomed to be frustrated as she has the gift of prophecy from Apollo. Unfortunately for her, it was given to her with the condition that no one would ever believe what she foretold.
King Priam, played by Greg Hicks on stilts, is very impressive. If nothing else, it is a major physical feat to spend the best part of an hour on a stage wearing stilts. He has to protect his daughter Cassandra from the Trojan women who do not believe her or appreciate the predictions that she makes. Cassandra is always frustrated and fearful even though she actually has great strength.
Into the seized city comes Pyrrhus in women's garb pretending to be his own non-existent sister. He is interrogated and as with some children's games is compelled to tell the truth. While this completely fools Priam and his countrymen, Cassandra sees through it but no one believes her.
As part of the process, we hear the story of Polixena who had led Pyrrhus' father Achilles to his doom by informing Paris of Achilles' heel.
This play builds up the tension, as Priam has to decide whether the Trojan horse is a gift horse or a stalking horse. As he says, no one can distinguish between the two although in reality, Cassandra can and has.
This last play of the second half is perhaps the most dramatic and shocking so far. It starts with a very dramatic and beautiful image as we see skeletons and armour on spears in a smoky, misty atmosphere.
The former chorus, now the women of Troy come onto stage in red wedding dresses as a way of trying to protect themselves from attack by the warriors of the West. The city has been razed to the ground and the sandy pit of the stage is littered with burnt remnants.
This is a play of sacrifice and while Odysseus has made many promises he is well able to play with words so that he need not keep his commitments.
The women of Troy are given to the warriors and in scenes of terrifying carnage are branded and enslaved. For his bravery the youthful Pyrrhus is allowed two women, one for himself and one for his dead father. For his father, he chooses Achilles' would-be wife Polixena and decides that she must be sacrificed. She bravely agrees that this is right and is led off to her apparent doom.
Two women dominate this play. Ann Mitchell as Queen Hecuba who wants to save Troy and resurrect it to its former glory and Annalee Jefferies as Andromache, her daughter. These women show great mental strength as they verbally battle with Odysseus.
We also see an interesting debate on the nature of war and pacifism. Like Neville Chamberlain, was Agamemnon's attempt to avoid war actually the cause of far more carnage than would have been the case if a swifter apparently more brutal decision had been taken? For the grieving women of Troy who have lost their sons and been sold into slavery, maybe this does not matter too much.
This play ends with the appearance of a much-changed Helen who is hardly recognisable to her husband Menelaus.
The Halls have increased the shocking impact of the branding and enslaving of the Trojan women very cleverly. The fact that our friendly college girl chorus are playing these Trojan women really brings home the brutality of the attack on them. These are not simply anonymous masked creatures, they are our friends from the beach.
Part 3: Cassandra
This play is really the biography of an unhappy heroine who is finally allowed to come to happiness when released from the curse of the God Apollo. Alyssa Bresnahan is excellent in the lead part.
The play has moved to Thrace where Hecuba has led Odysseus. Odysseus believes that the Trojan gold is hidden there while Hecuba has travelled there to be reunited with her son, Polydorus.
In fact, little Polydorus has been murdered by his brother-in-law Polymestor with no hindrance from his wife Ilione. This is far too much for Hecuba who literally goes mad with grief and desires revenge. After murdering Polymestor's child, she cuts out her own tongue and is transformed into a dog. This is not an easy part to play and Ann Mitchell carries it off very well.
There is much wise philosophy in these plays and Cassandra, who is condemned to be an oracle that nobody beliefs wisely asks the question "What is the point of justice?" While Hecuba shows that she believes that justice will always happen because "the Gods love us", there is very little in her treatment to prove her correct.
The plot then moves into possibly the most beautiful and cheering part of the whole sequence of plays. Cassandra has been named as "the downfall of men". She now predicts that she must bear Agamemnon's child and that as a result, Agamemnon will be killed by his wife, Clytemnestra. There are dire warnings that, "The thing that we fear most is the thing that always happens." Since this is inevitable, perhaps it is best to accept one's fate. This is certainly Agamemnon's view.
He is seduced by Cassandra and in a stunningly sensual moment, Greg Hicks, as Agamemnon removes Cassandra's mask and by doing so, frees her from her curse. Her face lights up and she is portrayed as truly happy. In turn, she removes Agamemnon's mask and with it his protection from the outside world and death. They finally fall into an erotic embrace and for the first and last time in the sequence of plays, we see two truly happy characters.
This play starts with a rather strangely compacted catch up. The chorus are humorously dressed as charladies and in no time at all update us on the action of the last seven years. They are in the home of Neoptolemus, who is now King of Phthia. He effectively has two different wives: Hermione who looks like one of Tennessee Williams' tragic heroines going off the rails and Andromache, the Trojan princess, who is now a slave.
The scene between the two "wives", is a humorous and moving as the neurotic Hermione accuses Andromache of fooling her husband.
It appears that Andromache's timid blinking child that Neoptolemus believes is his own is in fact the son of Hector. However, if Neoptolemus learns this then he will realise that it is he that is barren. Neoptolemus is doomed to die and follows his fate, and Hermione must then marry the mad Orestes.
This play finishes as Peleus who has outlived his whole generation, is reunited with his sea-nymph wife, Thetis. While her blue costume gives a feeling of the sea, is also too ludicrous to take seriously.
The sequence of ten plays condensed into nine for this production finishes with the trial of Helen (Annalee Jefferies) before the prophet Calchas and a jury of ancient woman. Calchas is raised on a platform, high above the stage like a tennis umpire. He must judge whether Helen has wickedly led thousands to their deaths or whether she innocent.
The old women are severely accusatory but Helen's husband, Menelaus, puts forward the preposterous sounding story that the Helen who was in Troy was merely an image of the real Helen who had spent the seventeen war years in Egypt. The Gods accept Helen's sad tale but the people are not as sympathetic.
Ultimately, the Gods are to blame for all troubles and they must also take responsibility when the people riot and the shrine at Delphi is wrecked. In a very dramatic coup de theatre, the world seems to explode and we are returned to the beach on which the cycle had started some nine hours of theatre before.
Our narrator explains to the sunbathing chorus the nature of drama and reality and brings the sequence to a close.
This epic production is in many ways very satisfying. It tells us of Greek myth in an entertaining and accessible way with much good writing and acting and constant entertainment. If there is any criticism, it might be suggested that too much of the acting takes place off-stage and narration takes the place of true drama too often. However, this is a relatively small quibble with what is, overall a massive and worthwhile project.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher