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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 320-324

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Performance Review



Tantalus. By John Barton. Denver Center Theatre Company in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver, Colorado. 28-29 October 2000.

IMAGE LINK= IMAGE LINK= Tantalus is mythology's icon to thwarted ambition; the one-time darling of the Gods condemned by Zeus never to reach that to which he aspired. For his manifold crimes of larceny, deception, and hubris against the Gods, Tantalus was left to stand in a pool of water, tethered to a tree rich with delicious fruit. However, when he attempted to drink, the water disappeared; when he reached, the fruit moved just beyond his grasp. Over Tantalus' head loomed a huge rock, balanced precariously, seemingly ready to drop at any moment. Like other great eponymous figures of contemporary theatre, (Godot, Lefty, Hughie), Tantalus never actually appeared in this collection of plays named for him. Nevertheless, his specter was omnipresent. Tantalus' sins of greed and stupidity were to be replicated throughout the production.

A world lingering upon the brink of destruction was the resonant image for Sir Peter Hall's disputatious Denver Center for the Performing Arts production of John Barton's Tantalus. As one might expect from so enormous and ambitious an undertaking, Tantalus was fraught with highly publicized behind-the-scenes drama. Actors and co-directors abandoned the project. Barton and Hall were involved in highly wrought disagreements over the paring down of Barton's eighteen-hour text into a "bare-bones" working script for this ten-hour production. At a week-end symposium, Barton asked that his text be exempted from considerations of the Denver production, referring to "the quest the company has been on," which reiterated the difference he saw between his text and this production. Nevertheless, as a project associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the plan is for Tantalus to tour Europe throughout 2001.

This Tantalus was both a work-in-progress and a major work of contemporary theatre. The drama was a valiant effort at re-conceptualizing the shards of ancient Greek myth and legend from a post-millennial [End Page 320] [Begin Page 322] perspective that confronted the rude and offensive, as well as the great and lofty. The text made use of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, while also attempting to re-invent the Epic Cycle, a lost saga of Troy and the house of Agamemnon. Barton chose to write the text in contemporary vernacular, making the situations and characters more accessible, yet there was no denying that the modern tone of Electra's "Don't put me down" in a confrontational moment with Clytemnestra was jarring when spoken within the context of ancient Argos. While not totally successful, this mighty endeavor, set within a magnificent and ever-changing visualization of the ancient Greek amphitheatre, was a challenging, at times, daring work that weighed upon the mind long after the nearly ten-hour running time had elapsed.

The modern world contemplating the age of the gods, particularly how that age has impacted our own civilization, was an image Tantalus nurtured from the very outset. A circular Greek orchestra filled with sand fronted a large, modern-looking mirrored Mylar skene. This basic set was brilliantly re-configured for each of the nine, one-hour 'mini' plays that comprised Tantalus. Indeed, the true hero of the enterprise may well have been designer Dionysis Fotopoulos, whose scenography and visual effects contributed mightily to the pace and energy of the production, obscuring the slow movements and dragging dramaturgy. By far the most arresting visual/dramatic moment of the production enacted the entrance of the Trojan horse. For this coup de thèâtre, the skene parted, revealing only the enormous wooden wheels of the horse as it rolled inside the bowels of the city. Alongside the wheels, the women of Troy danced in delirious joy to this monumental totem. These stunning visual movements were accentuated by smoke-filled lighting, cacophonous sound, and musical effects, all of which coalesced into a breathtaking theatrical moment.

Part One of Tantalus, entitled "The Outbreak of War," set the prologue upon...


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