Like the roar of an older, bolder London, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s GREEK bounces snarling onto the Grimeborn stage, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in the first ever revival of its world premiere production for Munich and ENO, directed both then and now by Jonathan Moore. The significant privilege of reviving such an iconic production of this groundbreaking work with the original creative team (Turnage himself has been attending rehearsals) has given Grimeborn its jewel for this year’s festival, and the Arcola easily one of the hottest opera tickets in London this summer. But this is no historical re-enactment: GREEK is as raw, angry and daring as ever, and the production feels boxfresh. While references to the social tensions of the Eighties (overflowing bins, unemployment, strikes and riots) still express the ‘state of plague’ in “this seething heap of world,” Moore works in touches of today: the London Riots, mobile phones, and wifi, while a huge graffiti wall beside the stage (a giant painted lightbox, used to screen projections of police brutality and civil unrest) proclaims HIPSTERS OUT! Dalston – you heard.
On a black lacquered stage tantalisingly bare of props, framed by a square of piped, colour-changing light running from floor to ceiling, the action unfolds with visceral immediacy. Designer Baśka Wesołowska produces a clear playing space where Moore creates violent aggression with superbly controlled choreography: fights are brilliantly dislocated across the stage, Eddy and his combatants landing (and realistically receiving) coordinated punches from a distance. Immaculate attention to detail is everywhere: as the orchestra tune up, Eddy attempts to enter the theatre, but is thrown out summarily by security. Moments later, he explodes into the auditorium to tell us his hideous story.
Lithe with physical menace as a young hoodlum, gracefully tense as an older, successful man who nevertheless feels he has more to prove, Edmund Danon’s Eddy is spot on: his London accent perfect, his baritone already richly tender, but capable of scorn and challenge, he seems born for this part, sliding from speech to song with confident command, and exploring the arrogance, fastidiousness and impetuousness of his accursed character with skill. Laura Woods is magnetic as his Wife (and Sis), her mezzo of liquid fullness, her hungry longing for her lost child heartbreaking, their erotic connection thoroughly disturbing. Philippa Boyle’s Mum is a tour de force of versatile character acting, her soprano lyrically expressive, while Richard Morrison’s Dad seethes with fragile machismo: the libretto, adapted from Berkoff’s play by Turnage and Moore, interleaves London slang with historical phrases, producing a Clockwork Orange mosaic which builds its own mythological atmosphere, and Boyle and Morrison in particular use a dazzlingly wide range of vocal styles to deepen this effect. A bowl of blood produces a deliciously grisly eye-gouging scene, but the shocks don’t end there, the opera remaining irrepressibly punk to the last. Turnage’s score, vividly delivered by the Kantanti Ensemble with crisp conducting from Tim Anderson, is astonishing: brimming with visual images, perfectly catching the cadence and textures of the London soundscape, setting words with unfailing clarity, combining mastery and humour like a gangster who grips you by the throat while slapping you conspiratorially on the back.
GREEK’s thrusting, vicious defiance feels like a blast from a braver, riper creative moment. It’s dark, edgy, bloody, and disturbing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted: snowflakes may sob with woke anxiety into their ironic gender-neutral moustaches. For the rest of us, it’s a clarion call of what art can, should and must provoke.
Presented by the Arcola Theatre as part of Grimeborn 2018, with generous support from the Grimeborn Funders’ Circle
Until 18 August 2018. Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here