Collect all the polluted epithets that people hurl at each other on the street and you’d have quite a heavy volume, not the least of which would concern people’s mothers. The streets of 1980s London are a dark and nasty place in Steven Berkoff’s play, a re-imagining of Oedipus Rex for the Margaret Thatcher years. In director Robert McNamara’s nimble re-staging of the play — which Scena Theatre first produced thirteen years ago — what glimmers is not gold but the baser minerals that pass between us, consummating our darkest deeds.
Greek is a miserable gem, wondrously adept at employing lyrical language to brutal ends. Written in 1980, Berkoff’s play imagines London as the new Thebes, a city rotting to pieces. Economic woes, lawlessness, broken social services, and a widening gap between rich and poor leave the general public oversexed and undernourished, driven by drugs and adrenaline and starving for a sense of home.
Like a sour, succulent fruit, the play woozes back and forth between gruesome excess and the sweet, simple desires underneath. And as one might imagine, given the source material, these split rivers of the heart pour squarely over the head of one man — the only poor wretch who deserves the disparaging names he’s called. Oedipus — here called Eddy (Eric Lucas) — is a walking vortex of all the confusion, frustration, dread, and erratic pride within Berkoff’s dystopia.
What happens to such a classic tale when tossed into modernity? The playwright’s two cents are worth pulling from the program note:
“In my eyes, Britain seemed to have become a gradually decaying island… The violence that streamed through the streets, like an all-pervading effluence, the hideous Saturday night fever as the pubs belched out their dreary occupants, the killing and maiming at public sports, plus the casual slaughtering of political opponents in Northern Ireland, bespoke a society in which an emotional plague had taken root.”
For McNamara, this translates to a stark, avant garde playing space, founded in grunge but played on with sparkle and high style. The set by Michael C. Stepowany is simple — just a white table, four white chairs, and two broken pillars far upstage covered in dirty white bathroom tile. The sound and music design by James Bigbee Garver is at turns creeping dissonance and spiky rhythm — a perfect fit.
But the action is far from fuzzy. Lucas appears in whiteface throughout, as do his surrogate parents (David Bryan Jackson and Danielle Davy) and his mother-cum-wife (Nanna Invargsson). McNamara has fused every declamatory hunk of narrative — there is indeed a lot of it — to a careful choreography of shared facial expressions, body tics, and fragments of pantomime. At moments, it’s a macabre clown show. At others, it’s like watching a timed round of charades.
The plot wends its way across the familiar ground of the Sophocles play, but takes ample liberties of its own. Eddy’s parents get the requisite bad news from a fortune teller and so evict their son from his warm home, out into the bones and juices of this nightmare city. He eventually finds sanctuary with a waitress who’s lost a son (hmm…) and gets a second chance to hide away. The urge to savor the warmth is so great — and the outside world so deeply awful — that when the shocking revelation comes, Eddy’s answer is not so grand and simple as it was for our original Oedipus.
The show demands a lot from its performers, both physically and vocally, and all rise to the challenge. Jackson, in particular, is captivating in his facial work, employing a strict sense of timing to achieve some moments of mime that would have impressed Marcel Marceau. The tone and size of his voice, too, slices and dices the dialect into vigorous ammunition. Davy and Invargsson are also a thrill, tapping into a sort of macabre melodrama that gives Greek its strange flair. Lucas, while solid, doesn’t inhabit the same inspired level of weird, and one hopes that in successive nights he broadens his range of tone beyond the roughneck gravity he’s already mastered.
Berkoff’s London may be overcrowded and head-crackingly violent. But all the sewage, vermin, and drugs in Britain can’t compare to the shameful messes people can make of each other behind closed doors. Scena’s ambitious production proves a great chance to investigate the violence inherent in intimacy. Here, all it takes is some face paint, a committed cast, and the harsh, calloused power of words.
Written by Steven Berkoff
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running Time: Approx.2 hours with one intermission.