Modern messages in an ancient tale

Tantalus @ Theatre Royal, Norwich

Tantalus @ Theatre Royal, Norwich


It said it all, during the final scenes last night of part one of this mighty epic of Grecian myth and doomed Troy.

The audience was held in an utter silence which was almost reverential. As well it might have been. For this creation is the true magic of theatre, of imagery which brands itself upon the retina; and of ritual as potent as ancient worship.

Sir Peter Hall has talked of audiences, ready to respond like children and to let themselves believe. And here, through John Barton's amazing evocation of Greece in a mythic age, and Peter Hall's all-affecting mastery of direction, we do just that.

Yet it is far, very far, from being a heavy stream of atavistic mystery. On the contrary, its language, its observations, its wisdoms, are exhilaratingly modern – and through it all there is a marvellous vein of laughter and wit and wicked one-liners.

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And the result is an essential simplicity which effortlessly hides the sheer brilliance of acting, direction, costume and masks; lighting (an epic performance in itself) and effects – and a momentum and pace as thrilling as storytelling of old, and as commanding as classic verse.

In these first three plays – six more will follow this afternoon and evening – we meet the principal characters of the odyssey.

A terrific story needs a great storyteller. And it has it here in the person of David Ryall as a Narrator who also slides into other characters as easily as the shift of a helmet. Ryall's tale-teller is wry, funny, likeable, insinuating, and carries us with him like a bard mesmerising an infants' class.

Greg Hicks is Agamemnon, whose mask reveals at once his tensions and inner anguishes. But Hicks uses a wholly arresting voice and voice pattern, nasal, undulating, infallibly exact, which tells us still more. Then he carries the voice into body language which recalls sinuous warrior figures carved in a Praxiteles frieze.

We see Ann Mitchell only briefly as Queen Hecuba of Troy, but she will figure grand and tragic as the story goes on. Yet her short appearance is stunning – a walking statue of Trojan gold, with a masked voice to make warriors tremble. Yet she gently commands through part one as the Nurse to Agamemnon's family, sage, powerful in her gentleness, loving yet ruthless, a one-woman chorus leading us to inevitably tragedy.

Alan Dobie, with his instantly recogniseable and incisive vocal tones, is an Odysseus who commands attention, in a mask which reflects the world-weary, pragmatic qualities which Dobie so strongly evokes.

In this telling of the Trojan story, we see an Achilles perhaps never seen before – less than sane, tortured, driven, in Robert Petkoff's finely drawn portrayal. When the bronze shell cracks, a vulnerable man is seen beneath it. But it will not last . . .

A terrific start to a nine-hour epic.

Copyright Charles Roberts