Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.28

Barton/Hall, Tantalus, an adaptation from the original ten-play cycle by John Barton (with additional text by Colin Teevan), directed by Peter Hall and Edward Hall.  

Reviewed by M. D. Usher, University of Vermont (
Word count: 1539 words

A review of Tantalus, an adaptation from the original ten-play cycle by John Barton (with additional text by Colin Teevan), directed by Peter Hall and Edward Hall; costumes and set design by Dionysis Fotopoulos; lighting design by Sumio Yoshii; music composed and directed by Mick Sands; presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company; performances from October 21-December 2, 2000; further information available at

I recently attended a preview of this ten-play cycle (which may be experienced in one grueling twelve-hour day, or in installments spread over two) and thought it might be helpful to flesh out the sketchy reports that have appeared in the media. The chief virtue of this massive production is that, to my mind, it truly succeeds in recreating the dynamics of ancient tragic composition and performance: that is to say, the plays of Tantalus are not modern productions of actual tragedies, but stand creatively in relation to their sources as a Greek playwright's did to his.

The production is being billed as "an epic for the new millennium." The epic in question is not the Iliad or Odyssey, but the Epic Cycle, the fragments of which provide the raw material for this modern foray into the mythological world of the Greeks. Tantalus in fact is very self-conscious about its sources. They are announced in the opening scene of the Prologue, where we meet an old man hawking souvenirs to a gaggle of sunbathing college girls on a beach in modern Greece. (The sunbathers morph incrementally into the chorus as the various plays unfold). These educated girls, confident in their textbook knowledge of Trojan War mythology, are initiated into "the rest of the story" by the old man, who proposes to tell them the bits that got left out. (Incidentally, he mutters this in garbled Greek. I heard something approaching leipsana tou epikou kyklou, though am unable to check it against Barton's actual script, which is due out later next month.) Where Aeschylus carved slices from the grand banquet of Homeric themes, Barton is intent upon picking up scraps off the floor. Thus, while the audience will meet familiar characters in the course of events, the course of events itself will be foreign to most viewers. What is more, Greece and its inhabitants are never mentioned by name -- only "the West" and its "war kings." In some ways, these strokes of defamiliarization carry the whole production, inviting viewers to consider the stock characters of Greek epic and tragedy in terms of the moral and psychological world that Tantalus creates, and not by vicarious reference to familiar texts.

Time and again Tantalus comes close to a better known version of a myth, but then pulls up short, or injects some imaginative color into the scheme. For example, there is Sinon and Cassandra, but no Laocoon, in the tense debate about the Trojan Horse. Neoptolemus gains entry into Troy to kill Priam, not in the machina belli, instar montis equum as Virgil (and Homer) have it, but disguised as Achilles' daughter, "Pyrrha," artfully left behind by the Greeks as a sacrificial recompense for Priam's sister, Hesione (who had been abducted earlier by Heracles and given as wife to Telamon, father of Teucer). Neoptolemus in drag, so far as I know, is not a detail preserved from antiquity, but in Barton's and Hall's hands it proves an effective counterpart to Achilles' transvestism on Scyros in order to avoid the war (an episode that is staged in Tantalus), especially given the way in which Neoptolemus is portrayed as overanxious to follow in his father's footsteps, and given the fact that both characters are played by the same actor.

Will the general audience recognize and appreciate such details? Perhaps not. But it doesn't have to in order to follow the plot. (Nonetheless, viewers are mercifully supplied with a thick Who's Who guide in the program.) In this regard, Tantalus bears comparison with a modern soap opera, where once you've seen the first few episodes you're hooked and want to follow the fortunes of the characters right through to the end. But to say this is not to cheapen Barton and Hall's achievement: One of the most remarkable things about this production is that, while it studiously avoids direct reference to extant Greek epic and tragedy, it nonetheless reproduces the central dilemmas one encounters there. This is not a banal, political play about the "stupidity of war" (in spite of the casual remarks made by Hall on National Public Radio), but of tragic characters caught in the web of destiny, desire, deceit, and the many more humble forms of human misdirection. The dialogue between Agamemnon or Odysseus and their victims, for example -- Clytemnestra, Hecuba, Andromache, Helen -- is riddled with the refrains "I'm sorry," "I did not intend," "It's not a moral question." The impassive expressions on their masks only underscore the ineluctable quality of these sentiments in the play.

The final play, in which Helen is tried for "war crimes" at Delphi, comprises the ultimate in defamiliarization--a sophistic palinode, as it were, to the earnest action that precedes. It proceeds as a series of antilogies by prosecution, defense, and witnesses, and seems to owe something structurally to the final scene of the Eumenides (though the tone is strictly Euripidean). In the morally ambiguous world that Tantalus creates, this is the truly tragic denouement: Helen never went to Troy; all the effort and loss was for nothing; the complicated emotional lives we see unravelled before our eyes were based only on a shameless phantom. The Tantalus cycle ends by leaving the audience to ponder the apotheosis of this shadowy figure called Helen. It is certainly significant that throughout this scene the face that launched a thousand ships is veiled in black.

Tantalus cost eight million dollars to produce. The six-month rehearsal schedule required special permission from the Actors Equity Group. Yet, though monumental in scale, the sets are simple; appropriately, shards and fragments of things seem to populate the stage. The costumes are also simple, but rich in contrasting colors and textures. Both costumes and set evoke various cultures and historical periods. The masks are realistic and ethopoeic (though on several of the female masks the mouth opening cast a shadow that looked alarmingly like a moustache). Agamemnon's mask, gaunt, with bags under its eyes, was particularly effective. Cassandra has what appears to be a facial cage attached to hers, symbolizing her prophetic isolation. Odysseus' mask bears a faint resemblance to a sad-faced clown, which struck me as appropriate for the unpredictable man of many turns. Peleus resembles the character Colonel Mustard in the boardgame "Clue". The chorus masks itself only gradually as it becomes more and more involved in the story. In a moving, symbolic representation of consciousness, love, and death, Agamemnon and Cassandra unmask (and unclothe) themselves, never to be seen onstage again.

Like the costumes and set, Barton's verse text is itself engagingly simple, almost minimalist, and convincingly delivered by the actors. The gravity of the diction is punctuated here and there with humorous asides, though neither the gravity nor the humor is overplayed. The words really do carry this piece. (Messenger scenes are put to good use, but the directors do not avoid altogether the ancient taboo of depicting violence onstage). To my ear, the measured delivery of lines by Agamemnon and Priam (both played by Greg Hicks) reached high points of poetry. Priam's brief appearance was made all the more memorable by the sheer spectacle of his entry on stage. Frail, decrepit, dressed in a long black cloak, he lumbers in on stilts, supported by two correspondingly frail walking canes, and dons an ornately stylized neckbrace attached to his skull -- an eerie amalgamation of Frankenstein and Ichabod Crane.

Of course there are duller moments (but remarkably few in such a long production). Electra in the guise of an angry punk rocker did not strike me as very inspired. Fortunately, her role is small. And Cassandra can protest too much sometimes. The character of Achilles does not have what Aristotle would call sufficient magnitude to elicit much sympathy, be it fear or pity (This effect was arguably intentional, though much of the problem for me had to do with an irritating bounce in his step). The character Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaus, was also less than compelling (or perhaps her role in the saga was simply ill defined). She is presented as a spoiled, prissy, sexually uptight victim of her mother's supposed whoring and her father's prolonged absence. Other minor blemishes: some of the ancient names were consistently mispronounced, even allowing for Latinate or English pronunciations (e.g. "Ilione" with a long "i" on the first syllable and with the second "i" elided; what's wrong with iambic i-LEYE-o-nee?), and the meanings of some significant names are incorrectly glossed in the script ("Neoptolemus" as "new soldier"; "Pyrrhus" as "rage").

For those who plan to see Tantalus between now and December, I hope I have not given too much away. For those who are considering it, I would say it is well worth the cost and trouble of attending this marathon performance, if not in Denver, then in London.

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