Marathon Man

6 minute read

It’s marathon season on London’s stages. Less than a month after the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) raised the curtain on its epic cycle of Shakespeare’s plays This England—The Histories at the Barbican, the same venue hosts a show that claims to be the longest play ever written. Tantalus, penned by RSC author and director John Barton, is a vast retread through the saga of the Trojan War. Divided into nine parts, Tantalus lasts all of 10 hours—long enough to convey the scale of the decade-long conflict it depicts. (Playgoers can see the play in three installments over consecutive weeknights, or instead commit to a day-long session at the weekend.) And the tales of backstage battles and machinations surrounding the birth of this $8 million monster seem almost worthy of Homer himself.

Barton started work on this project back in 1980. He lined up his old friend and RSC founder Peter Hall to direct, and a conglomerate of six companies—led by the RSC—was formed to share the formidable costs. “We then heard very little for the next 17 years,” reports Hall, “until John turned up at my house one day in 1997 with a huge bag full of manuscripts. He had finished.” Now though, Hall and Barton had to face an old enemy, finance. One by one, four of the companies dropped out, leaving only the RSC (which by now was offering facilities and management in England but no funds) and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Denver’s deepocketed chairman Donald Seawell agreed to underwrite the entire project on condition that it be rehearsed and premiered in Denver. So Tantalus shifted to Seawell’s mountain complex, the largest performing arts center in the world. Even the 88-year-old Seawell, a former aide to U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower, was daunted by the size of the task: “I helped to administrate D-Day, which was pretty big,” says Seawell, “But this is up there with it.”

In March 2000, Hall assembled a 23-strong trans-Atlantic cast and two British co-directors—rising stars Mick Gordon (previously artistic director of the prestigious London fringe venue The Gate) and Hall’s son Edward (whose production of Henry V is one of this season’s RSC hits)—and embarked on 29 weeks of rehearsal. Then the battles began. “We experimented with every style of theater,” says Hall. “Every scene has been sung, improvised, mimed, danced. It has been a tremendous exploration for all of us.” Some did not like what they found. Lead actor John Carlisle, uncomfortable with the decision to have the lead actors’ faces covered by Greek masks, resigned. Soon afterward, Gordon left with no public explanation. Most dismaying of all to Hall and Seawell was Barton’s refusal to approve the cuts needed to get the running time down from 15 hours to 10. Barton returned to England in a rage, keeping an indignant silence ever since. “It was the end of a 50-year friendship,” sighs Hall. The two have not spoken since.

But Hall has made what remains of Barton’s text (the complete script is published by Oberon Books) speak thrillingly. After an acclaimed opening in Denver last year, he has brought his troops home, with a tour culminating in the current London run through May 19.

Tantalus begins, unexpectedly, with a gaggle of bikini-clad girls lying on a beach (a sandy mound surrounded by mirrored walls that is the production’s permanent set). An old man appears, offering stories for sale. The girls accept, and the complex tales begin. Over the next 10 hours, the storyteller relates the savagery, the desperate humor and the anguish of the Trojan War. Underpinning it all is the legend of Tantalus—the man who stole nectar from the gods to become immortal and was made to stand under a great boulder that at any moment might crush him and the earth. From time to time the ominous creaking of that boulder can be heard above the stage.

Barton and Hall use the classic techniques of Greek theater to stunning effect. Following the tradition of Sophocles, the stage is filled with conversation rather than action. Battles and grisly murders are reported rather than seen, giving the show the probing need-to-know quality of a thriller. When, for example, Robert Petkoff’s previously innocent Neoptolemus enters, having helped to defeat Troy, caked in blood and thirsty for more, the stark contrast with his earlier self is horrifying—his gradual descent to animalism has happened offstage, and his appearance shocks and raises burning questions. Hall’s repertoire of directorial flourishes is amazing—green and red mists hover above the murky gloom; the Trojan Horse is suggested by a glimpse of two giant wheels that trundle across the back of the stage. The introduction of masks is a revelation. To begin with, only the ancient characters wear them, giving them an outsize grandeur that fits their mythic quality. Gradually, as the beach-girls become ever more fascinated, they don their own masks and enter the action, as—to their shock—the brutalised refugees of a vicious war. At the conclusion, they re-emerge as themselves, blinking in the sudden light and sobered by their glimpse of inhumanity.

The cast (four British, the rest American), each of whom plays several parts, is uneven. Mia Yoo as the petulant Hermione seemed very uneasy with the masks, and Ann Mitchell as Hecuba struggled with a severe throat infection. However, Alan Dobie’s Odysseus is a model of ruthless rationality, and Robert Petkoff is frighteningly off-the-rails as both a war-crazed Achilles and the son who gradually inherits his ruthless traits, Neoptolemus.

But the production’s great heart beats in Greg Hicks’ towering Agamemnon. Whether fighting Odysseus’ logic with his own instinct for mercy, or absorbing fate’s cruelty with cynical humor, Hicks commands authority. The scene where he is seduced by the prophetess Cassandra (Alyssa Bresnahan) is immensely moving. Stripped of his robes, Hicks slumps, no longer the strong warrior but a man, broken and hurt. The human face of war.

There are occasional lapses, even the odd moment when the writing seems too flippant. Yet Hall and Barton have forged an accessible and touching account of a war that is every war and speaks for every time. David Ryall’s storyteller closes with Zeus’ words to Tantalus: “You hope to become godlike without first understanding what it is to be human. That is dangerous.” The words echo long after the curtain falls.

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