Tantalus - Peter Hall - John Barton - Barbican

I went to the Barbican to see John Barton's epic Tantalus which took two years to reach the stage and 15 years to write!!! Barton fell out with the Director Peter Hall and so ruined a friendship of many years because Barton's originally 15 hours' long epic was cut to nearly 13 hours. The feud went on in a fashion that matched anything the ancient Greeks had to offer! The production was actually a co-production with Peter Hall and Edward, his 33-year old son from his second marriage, who made a lot of the masks. I was so fascinated by the beautiful masks worn by the cast-members. The American choreographer, Donald Mckayle, deserves special praise for actually bringing the fabulous masks to life, which gave the uneven ensemble of the cast a kind of unity.

Tantalus tells the story of the Trojan Wars but the wars backstage upstaged even them! ! Tantalus doesn't actually appear in the play but his myth dominates it: Tantalus reaches for a fruit as it swings away from his grasp. He tries to drink from a pool but the level falls every time his lips reach for it; over him hangs a huge rock held by the silken ropes of Zeus. It is a constant reminder of punishment to come because one day the rock will fall and the world will end. Our English word "Tantalising" comes from this ancient Greek parable of setbacks, disasters and just-deferred catastrophe. (ie to torment with disappointment, raise and then dash the hopes of; tantalus Latin from the Greek tantalos, the mythical king punished in Hades with sight of inaccessible water and fruit).

The cast was Anglo-American, the show being a joint production between the RSC and the main money-providers, the Denver Centre Theatre. The play was inspired by events surrounding the Trojan War, including the exploits of demi-god Achilles (where the phrase "Achilles heel" comes from - a vulnerable spot where the tendon attaches the heel muscles to the calf. Achilles as a baby had been made invulnerable by his mother who had dipped him in the Styx apart from his heel by which she held him and it was a shot in this vulnerable heel which finally killed him: hence "Achilles heel").

What caused the world's most mythological war? Emotion, greed, chance, fate, ambition, divine mischief or a mix of them all? Nothing seems to have changed today. The epic is actually a marathon requiring six intervals and two meal breaks. I don't know how the audience finds the stamina (I was exhausted! ! ) let alone the cast! One lady in the audience had her "survival kit" as she called it including Lucozade, hand-wipes and a toothbrush (I couldn't quite see what all this was for as it wasn't an all-night event!!! ). There was a great feel of a wartime spirit ("we're all in this together") amongst the audience.


Verinha Ottoni.


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