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Greek (Music Theatre Wales at ROH Linbury)

Steven Berkoff and Mark-Anthony Turnage come face to in-yer-face in this savage political opera

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote Anna Nicole, produced by the Royal Opera in 2011, he went in a completely new direction both for himself and the opera house. Before that, he'd created two of the most electrifying stage works of recent times: The Silver Tassie, a modern classic well-due a revival, and, as a precocious lad in his twenties, Greek based on Steven Berkoff's ingenious 1980 play. It was an inspired choice. Berkoff was at the height of his powers as a writer and actor when he re-wrote Sophocles transposed to the Great Plague of Thatcher's Britain and, in turning it into an opera, Turnage had begun his career pushing on the boundaries of the art form.

Marcus Farnsworth in Greek - Music Theatre Wales;
(C) Clive Barda 2011
Certainly it requires something of opera singers that lies well beyond their usual range, only too apparent in Music Theatre Wales's interpretation of the piece. The performance is a semi-staging (not mentioned in the publicity), something of a cop-out, with the stage filled by the orchestra, while approximations of the action take place on a slender platform in front of them. There's something of the village hall about the change-hats-to-change-character nature of the presentation and a fair amount of mugging and generalised emoting replaces genuine characterisation.

Marcus Farnsworth can be forgiven a certain amount when ailing, as he was on the first night of the Linbury run, which (one assumes) reduced the power of his performance, but well done to him for getting on with the show in the circumstances. The women – Sally Silver and Louise Winter in a range of roles – are most guilty of emotional windmilling, although Gwion Thomas's rough targeting is not far behind. Thank goodness, then for the playing of The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under Michael Rafferty, who give plenty of welly to Turnage's spiky and wittily-inventive music.

An advantage of opera over theatre is the chance to dwell and extend certain moments and Turnage does that most effectively during Eddie's farewell to his parents and later The Waitress/Jocasta's lament over her murdered husband. Elsewhere, there's some excitement in the noisy riot scene, typical of the level of energy scattered throughout the evening (no complaints as far as effort is concerned), but paradoxically even 'down and out' roughness requires some refinement in the execution.

Michael McCarthy and Simon Banham are credited as director and designer, although it's difficult most of the time to detect their contributions. The furniture, plastic chairs and canteen tables, surely can't have been brought in the van but are presumably found lying around at each venue, as there's little in the way of aesthetic cohesion.

John Fulljames's production of Birtwistle's Down by the Greenwood Side, seen in this same venue a couple of years ago, showed how similar material can be presented much more effectively by a company of similar size. This year is MTW's 25th Anniversary and the longevity of a touring opera company is to be celebrated. Any shortcomings in Greek can be over-looked when considering that this fine piece of work deserves wider exposure, which it will get in early 2014, when there'll be a Radio 3 transmission of the London run.