, January 2008
A vintage BBC film of Turnage's apocalyptic vision of the Thatcher years
Mark-Anthony Turnage's first opera, his Steven Berkoff treatment Greek (1988), packs quite a punch, reminding us of the vehemently oppositional mood of so much cultural production in the Thatcher years. Even if you attribute some of its pugnacious energy to the text's radical mix of the highfalutin and the scatological, Turnage's musical treatment imparts an edginess of its own. There is lyricism of a kind but more late Stravinsky than Britten, Tippett or Vaughan Williams, a balance neatly reversed in The Silver Tassie (2000), a less economical, more stylistically conformist successor.
While an audio recording of Greek was a jewel in the crown of the Argo label (7/94), the ultra-stylised retelling of the Oedipus myth works better in the context of this vintage BBC film chock-full of memorably revolting scenes. Reviewing the work without its visual dimension, Michael Oliver was not entirely convinced by "an apocalyptic vision seen from the comfortable vantage point of a decent restaurant well up West". I didn't feel that, though greater chronological distance may be required to give the piece's indictment of 1980s Britain the timeless quality of great art. That may seem a pretentious comment but Berkoff is nothing if not ambitious: "... this is not simply an adaptation of Sophocles but a recreation of the various Oedipus myths which seemed to apply, particularly to a play about what I saw London had become. London equals Thebes and is full of riots, filth, decay, bombings, football mania, mobs at the palace gates, plague madness and post-pub depression."
The singers are close-miked but opting into the subtitles (available in several languages) helps focus the sense and the warped poetry of the whole. Light entertainment it ain't. The direction by Jonathan Moore and Peter Maniura certainly avoids the cosy naturalism of conventional TV drama. And you may not feel like eating toast for a long time after witnessing the Act 1 breakfast scene. Unusually helpful booklet-notes provide extra context. Strongly recommended.