Friday, 27 June 2014

Theatre review: Idomeneus

The mythology of the Trojan War often sees the Greeks' triumph soured, as they return home to face tragedy and betrayal. Cretan king Idomeneus tops off his decade at war with a catastrophic storm on the way home. Of all his ships, only the one carrying Idomeneus himself survives, and only because the king promises the sea god Poseidon a gift: On reaching Crete he'll sacrifice the first living creature he sees. Of course he docks to find his own son Idamantes waiting to greet him. With its themes of human sacrifice, family tragedy and a classic dick move by the gods, it seems like this should be one of the better-known Greek myths, but Idomeneus' post-Troy fate doesn't feature in the Iliad and remains fairly obscure. The sources that do mention it differ on how the story plays out, and that's where Roland Schimmelpfennig's Idomeneus comes in.

In Ellen McDougall's production at the Gate, five actors enter and make for an initially cautious, uncertain kind of Chorus attempting to tell the story. They're agreed on Troy, the storm on the way home and the deal with the gods, but beyond that things get complicated.

Alex Austin, Jon Foster, Mark Monero, Susie Trayling and Ony Uhiara continue to narrate the story as well as taking on the roles, although like the story the casting remains fluid: Monero tends to play Idomeneus and Austin his son, but they can change without warning. And so they play out the different ways the king can react on reaching Crete, as well as other elements that sometimes come into the story: In some versions a rival king (Foster) with a grudge against the generals is sleeping with the Queen (Trayling.) In others Idamantes is in love with Uhiara's Electra; perhaps it's during this story that she first hears news of what will become her own tragedy.

And McDougall finds dynamic ways for the actors to explore the possibilities: Initially respectful of Ana Ines Jabares Pita's glossily formal-looking set, the Chorus are soon enough running around it barefoot, leaving it a glorious mess of thrown water, ink, petals, balloons, chalk dust and talc.

It's this playfulness in amongst the musings on fate and responsibility, and the limitations and possibilities of storytelling, that really makes Idomeneus stand out as something different and special. Intelligent and complex without ever feeling pretentious, this is worth catching if you can - and if you sit in the front row you might get a party popper, or the chance to throw water over the cast.

Idomeneus by Roland Schimmelpfennig in a version by David Tushingham is booking until the 19th of July at the Gate Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes straight through.

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