Troy story

Theatre - David Jays sits through 13 hours of apocrypha

"We have all waited long, but it's not over yet," warns Odysseus, several hours into this marathon venture. Twenty years in the writing, John Barton's Tantalus, an elliptical epic of the Trojan war, was finally produced this winter by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. After a fractious production process, Peter Hall and his son Edward now direct, with additional material by Colin Teevan. Most hurtfully, Barton himself became estranged, dismayed at the trimming and reshaping of his cherished project. As a British tour began at the Lowry in Salford, some of the production's choices seemed crass, but the directors may have grown frustrated with Barton's elusive text.

Tantalus's nine plays can be seen in a single, 13-hour arc or in three separate blocks. Barton follows the capture of Helen, the prolonged assault on Troy and the distress of the bereaved, but vaults over the ten-year siege, and relates the plot of The Oresteia in a traveller's aside. This is the Apocrypha of the classical canon: even the climactic trial of Helen proposes that the beauty who caused all the bother was merely an animated image; the real Helen waited out the war in Egypt.

A search for the origins of conflict becomes an endless quest for blame. The characters trace it back, usually banging their heads on the rock to which their ancestor Tantalus is chained. (Periodic trickles of sand from above warn us that the monument to presumption may crash down.) Tantalus attempted to steal the nectar of the gods, but his real crime was to "hope to become godlike without first understanding what it is to be human". Here, the hit-and-run gods never appear, and their injunctions are filtered through a priest. It is difficult to unpick Tantalus's take on human intention. This is a history of false starts and destructive oversights - of fleets arriving on the wrong shore and massacring in frustration, of heroes spearing a sacred stag and inviting divine wrath, of parents transfixed in uncertain response, even as a blackmailer's axe hangs over their baby.

On a beach strewn with wreckage, against a dark, reflecting wall, gods and heroes are reduced to kitsch souvenirs, the golden age recast in plastic. A storyteller (David Ryall) begins the saga, his voice and suit disreputably crumpled. We begin in saucy travesty, as Leda pops up, tufts of swan-down in her hair. Leering patriarchs and shimmying wenches seem more Aristophanes than Aeschylus.

In the opening quote from Odysseus, the first clause is by Barton, the second a self-mocking addition, for the Halls continually soothe us with chuckles. You sympathise if Barton winced at the tone, especially the pneumatic flippancy of the first acts, making the chorus a bikini-clad gaggle of babes ("We're educated girls"). One of Barton's great directorial gifts is a melancholy comedy, so it seems unfair to flatten his text into a saga of funny things happening on the way to Troy. This disastrous beginning takes several hours to repair.

Most of the actors are masked, and the women initially appear as knock-offs from 1940s Hollywood - a nymph sashays like Rita Hayworth, bullish matriarchs swagger like Joan Crawford. Female suffering is everywhere: seduction snarls into rape; daughters embrace sacrifice as a way of ducking out of the action. No one knows, or will tell, what happened between Helen and Paris, and Helen herself is endlessly objectified, a golden girl demurring: "You have made a myth of me."

The observing chorines are increasingly subsumed into the tragedy. Western drama begins in these tales, so Tantalus is also a history of acting, of theatre itself. Achilles and his son Neoptolemus are both coerced into women's clothing but, dragged into drag, they assert their compromised masculinity - Neoptolemus becomes a hoarse thing of blood, smearing gore on his captives. Amid muddy motives, the play asks if acting is an agent of history or a fruitless attempt to hold it back.

The surest part of the production is the commanding central passage about the war's end and its aftermath. The images are spectacular, the feeling direct. A mighty head, toppled from a statue, dominates Troy, a city tense with rumour and conjecture, its king doddering on stilts and leaning on spidery canes. Defeat comes with a disguised Neoptolemus twirling under a scarlet wedding headdress as the back wall is breached to admit the huge wheels of the beguiling wooden horse. Finally, seven hours in, emotion is admitted. In her greatcoat, Hecuba (a scathing Ann Mitchell) becomes a bellowing mob matriarch with a New Jersey twang, rallying the widows, her "puppies". The women lament their slavery in broken music, and Annalee Jefferies plays Andromache with fantastic scorn, deriding her consignment to Neoptolemus's "brat-bed". The beachscape is by now littered and derelict, unrecognisable as a place of leisure, and Sumio Yoshii's lighting is cold and comfortless.

Voice-muffling masks cannot subdue Greg Hicks's magnificent performance as Agamemnon, initially caught redhanded in slaughter. His torso wilting, mask creased through perpetual negotiation, the general becomes wearied by the entrapment of stories, their pull towards catastrophe. "Listen to the sea," he urges. "It gets inside men's hearts like a grey shifting ghost." Such touches apart, Tantalus lacks metaphor and linguistic razzle-dazzle. The language is surprisingly plain - trotting through dynasty and trading boardroom strategy - although penetrated by quotation: notably the Players' speech from Hamlet, while echoes of Tony Harrison's Oresteia translation creep into later episodes.

Cassandra, the disregarded prophetess, her mask criss-crossed with barbed wire, addresses us directly. We share her "foreknowledge" of events, but also her grudging bafflement about how to use it. What is remarkable about this play is its excess of meaning, yielding so few conclusions. Barton continually denies resolution - the aftermath of war, although bathed in light, remains unsatisfying. His tenth play and epilogue, both of which Hall discards, untie the narrative's few knotted ends and offer further alternatives. This production concludes with Helen's trial for war crimes, urged by a rattling crone chorus. In the single moment of supernatural intervention, she is lifted into heaven.

Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, another audacious treatment of the Trojan war, provided the endstone of Barton's landmark Playing Shakespeare television series, a quiescent dialogue awaiting the judgement of "that old common arbitrator, Time". Time's judgement on Tantalus may be deferred, but I'd love to see a production that fully honoured the play's perverse and questing evasions.

Tantalus tours to Milton Keynes Theatre 28 February- 3 March (01908 606090); Newcastle Theatre Royal 10-17 March (0191 232 2061); Norwich Theatre Royal 4-8 April (01603 630000); London Barbican Centre 2-19 May (020 7638 8891). John Barton's full text is published by Oberon Books (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Please, sir, we girls want some more