Review: Greek in Edinburgh

First published in the Guardian on 6 August, 2017

After it’s over, after he’s killed his dad and done the worst with his mum and put out his own eyes, Eddy — our modern-day Oedipus and protagonist of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek — offers a moral of sorts. “Bollocks to that,” he grins, blood smeared across his face. Reason drums home the horror of his actions but in his gut he wants to do it all again. He wonders whether ignorance acquits him of responsibility. Take your pick of contemporary overtones.

This was the opera that made Turnage’s breakthrough with its screaming trumpets and cockney slang lifted from Steven Berkoff’s tough state-of-the-nation play. The UK premiere was at the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival; three decades later, here was Turnage again taking a bow alongside Berkoff — and the piece still feels clever, still full of a bleak humour and social malaise that hit a very live nerve. Besides a couple of Maggie references, the drama updates with depressing ease.

The appeal for opera companies is obvious. Greek has become a safe way to tick the risque box: swear words, jazz riffs, working class issues, tick tick tick. It is still uncomfortable to witness an opera audience laughing at stereotyped chavs. Is it really so funny to hear a swear word, a strong accent, a song about domestic abuse? The sniggers proved we’ve not moved on much in 30 years.

What is excellent about this new Scottish Opera/Opera Ventures co-production directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins is that it mostly sidesteps the obvious, keeping staging minimal and forefronting the visceral and tender power of the text and music. We get a few tabloid headlines shouting Brexit, May, Johnson, enough to make the point, and some fun stuff with live video effects (very live in the case of squirming maggots). Conductor Stuart Stratford doesn’t bring much swagger to the score — every tepid tempo change left me wanting something bolder — but the orchestra sound game.

Mostly it’s over to the terrific cast. Susan Bullock, Allison Cook and Andrew Shore play mum, dad, wife and more as a sassy and loveable trio. Alex Otterburn is magnetic as Eddy. First thing he does is eyeball us in intense silence; this is a performer with serious stage presence and a voice to match. Anyone who saw Marcus Farnsworth in the role will forever have that potency etched into their retinas, but Otterburn makes it his own, cocksure, vulnerable and believable.