Sir Peter Hall's epic staging of the Greek tragedy, Tantalus, makes its British premiere this weekend at The Lowry in Salford prior to a short regional tour and a London engagement in May. The marathon production opens on Saturday 27 January 2001 (following previews from 22 January) and continues in Salford to 10 February. It then visits Nottingham, Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Norwich before opening on 2 May at London’s Barbican Centre where it runs to 19 May.

Lasting eight and a half hours (twelve hours with meal breaks) and featuring an international cast of 29 actors, John Barton's cycle is one of the most ambitious theatrical projects ever undertaken. It first opened in October 2000 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, which originated the production in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Written by RSC director and adviser Barton and adapted by Hall, Tantalus is a modern theatrical epic which tells, for the first time, the whole story of the Trojan War. Though the roots of the story lie in a war nearly 3,000 years ago, Barton's stage chronicle is a sequence of entirely new plays, which recreates in contemporary terms the mythical sweep of the tales of war, family and destiny.

Tantalus was commissioned by the RSC, under the leadership of Trevor Nunn. Following the success of Barton's The Greeks, the company nurtured the cycle's development over the 15 years Barton spent writing it. Barton has drawn on some of history's most famous stories in the work while also incorporating hitherto unknown material from fragmentary sources. Tantalus is a character in Greek myths who was punished by the Gods for stealing their secrets. He was punished by having to spend the rest of eternity hungry and thirsty, with food and drink in sight but always - tantalisingly - just out of reach.

Once Barton's work was finally complete, it seemed at first that, owing to its scale, the cycle would have little chance of being staged - until Donald Seawell, founder and chairman of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, stepped in. Seawell, a governor of the RSC and long-time associate of both Hall and Barton, offered to produce Tantalus using the resources of the DCTC.

Barton and Hall - who first worked together nearly four years ago on the epic The Wars of the Roses, which combined three Shakespeare classics into one production - have famously fallen out over the final product. Originally 14 hours in length, Hall cut Tantalus by 30 to 40 percent in order for it be performed in one day. Barton is said to no longer consider the abbreviated version his play.

Prior to its premiere in Denver, Tantalus underwent an unprecedented six months of rehearsal time. The work breaks down into three parts - The Outbreak of War, The War and The Homecomings - which can be seen individually on weeknights or viewed altogether on Saturdays. The international cast includes RSC regulars Greg Hicks, Ann Mitchell and David Ryall. It is directed by Peter Hall and his son Edward Hall, and designed by Greece's foremost theatre and film designer, Dionysis Fotopoulos, with lighting by Ninagawa's collaborator Sumio Yoshii, music by Irish composer Mick Sands and choreography by Broadway veteran Donald McKayle.

- by Terri Paddock