Agony of changeless human condition

Tantalus Part 2, Royal Shakespeare Company @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

Tantalus Part 2, Royal Shakespeare Company @ Theatre Royal, Norwich


The more one delves into John Barton's Tantalus, the more one is conscious of riches not only literary and theatrical, but of the stuff of philosophy and debate – and of the never-changing foibles and faults of humankind.

In this second part of the RSC's epic nine-play cycle, we are yet more conscious, not just of a feast of superlative acting and directing, but of how much there is of us in the mythical characters arrayed before us. And of how little, in 4000 years, we have learned.

Part 2 has a keener focus for us: the taking and destruction of Troy and, in its aftermath, the abuse and humiliation of its Royal women. All because the city's women decided to pull through their gates the mighty Wooden Horse.

Director Peter Hall and his designer handle the moment with awesome simplicity. On a video screen which becomes part of the sdtaging, we see ropes straining, the mistiness of sweat and sand – then wheels appear, so vast, that we know at once how titanic in size is the horse itself. Brilliant theatre.

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Up until now, the Narrator and his unfolding of the tale have shared an attentive chorus of attractive young women of our time, American tourists on a Mediterranean beach. Then a point comes where they don the full-face masks which take them – and us – back through millennia, and fully into ther story.

And rude and brutal is their reception, for they are the Royal women of Troy, who are stripped nakjed and branded as slaves by the sackers of their city.

So real has it all become, so mesmeric, and so much have we too entered the tale, that as the branding irons touch flesh and agony screams out, we cringe in our seats.

Now Hecuba, proud queen of Troy, must now show her mettle and give her courage to her kin. Gone is her abundance of gold trappings, her robes of state. But in Ann Mitchell's seering interpretation, she is as commanding as before, overwhelming in presence, and with a voice of hammered bronze.

When, in her un-wisdom, she thinks that victory is their's, that voie makes the blood surge as it thunders: “We have won the war and all our dreams are become reality.” Alas, poor Hecuba!

Priam, king of Troy, is a strange, elderly, stick-insect figure on stilts, as realised by Greg Hicks, who reflects with deepest irony a man for whom power is the evasion of decisions. More fruitful for him is the pursuit of young virgins . . . never were ageing hands so sly ans sinful and windmilling with lust.

At the heart of the Trojan nightmare is Neoptolemus, the boy for whom killing and blood become a cocktail for madness. Robert Petkoff pitches his voice as adolescent treble – which serves to underline the monster he has become.

Alan Dobie's world-weary, chillingly practicasl Odysseus says at one point: “We have all waited long – and it is not yet over.”

Copyright Charles Roberts 2001

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