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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Gate Theatre       Summer  2014

Contemporary German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig deconstructs Greek tragedy, runs it through various permutations, and happily demonstrates that it is stronger than anything he can do to it. The result is critically sound, frequently amusing and consistently inventive and theatrically fascinating. 

The Cretan King Idomeneus returns from the Trojan War with his army remarkably intact and unharmed, only to encounter a storm at sea that destroys all the ships but his. Frantic, he promises the gods that if he makes it back to Crete safely he'll sacrifice the first living thing he sees. 

You can see the tragic direction this is going, but the playwright then tries to avoid it. Each scene that follows is repeated in several variations, and each of those then branches out to new alternatives. 

The effect is something like a make-your-own-adventure children's book in which you decide which page to turn to next, or a computer game in which decisions made in one scene determine what scene follows except that here we see all the alternatives at every level. 

And with an inexorability that Sophocles would recognise, they all wind up pointing in the same general and tragic direction. 

It's a very impressive exercise in literary criticism, and also the opportunity for some very inventive theatre. 

Schimmelpfennig calls for a Chorus of at least ten to narrate and take turns playing the various characters, but director Ellen McDougall limits the cast to five, introducing them as recognisable modern types (buttoned-down businessman, society matron, backpacking kid, etc.), and then suggests that they're improvising the story as they go along. 

This leads to apparent moments of awkwardness, as one speaker talks the story into a corner from which the next must extricate it; moments of high inventiveness, as they individually or collectively come up with narrative solutions; and even moments of comedy, as their story-telling or role-playing duties clash with their modern personalities. 

Through it all, playwright, director and cast keep their eye on the ball, which is the discovery that tragedy has an inevitability that no amount of invention can evade. 

Though everyone shares roles, Mark Monero plays the King most consistently, which gives him the opportunity to stand out, though that is the only distinction from the equally fine performances of Alex Austin, Jon Foster, Susie Trayling and Ony Uhiara. 

Only occasionally and briefly, when the playwright gets a little too openly preachy about the evils of war or the sins of the fathers affecting their children, does the play lose its sure touch, though the central device of searching out alternative versions of each scene can make the play feel over-stretched even at just over an hour. 

David Tushingham's translation has sometimes jarring modernisms which I will assume are in the original and deliberate ways of forcing the material through modern sensibilities.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Idomeneus - Gate Theatre 2014

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