In the early 1980s, as Great Britain reeled from the onslaught of Tory rule and a new world order promoting the rich and discarding the working class, playwright and actor Steven Berkoff married this darker side of the British Conservative Party’s Thatcherism with the classic “Oedipus Rex” tragedy to create a cult masterpiece, “Greek.” Next week, the Boston Lyric Opera is staging Mark-Anthony Turnage’s operatic adaptation of Berkoff’s masterful play as part of its Opera Annex series, which features works by contemporary composers.
This is the first major U.S. production of “Greek,” and it runs for only four performances at the Emerson-Paramount Center. Just why America shunned what is considered a major theatrical work until now could be down to the very Britishness of the setting in London’s then-poor, racially volatile East End (where Berkoff grew up). Or it could be because Berkoff pulls no punches, and doesn’t mince words.
“It is a very aggressive story and the language is startling, especially if you are not used to hearing those kind of words sung,” says director Sam Helfrich about the expletive littered libretto. “It is a graphic portrayal of a rough community; it is a brutal, violent piece.”
And, of course, there is “Oedipus’” morally reproachable, incestuous storyline. It reoccurs in “Greek” whose young hero/anti-hero Eddy, portrayed by British baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who previously performed the role in a 2013 Music Theatre Wales production, leaves his East End home after a fortune teller predicts he will kill his father and marry his mother. Eddy finds a wife and is doing well until his parents reveal that his wife is his birth mother.
That aside, the New York-based Helfrich, who directed BLO’s first Opera Annex series production, “The Turn of the Screw,” seven years ago, thinks the setting of marginalized working class people has parallels to America’s current social climate and will resonate with younger opera goers.
“This American election cycle has highlighted working class families who feel they are being left out. Eddy’s father is right wing and probably supports the National Front,” Helfrich says, referring to the anti-immigrant British nationalist party. “That feeling looms large in the U.S. right now.”
Though “Greek” is dark and abrasive, there is some humor: “Yesterday, we laughed a lot in rehearsal,” Helfrich says. “There’s this weird pantomime number when Eddy’s parents re-enter his life. There’s this terrible awkwardness that’s just so funny.”
Unlike Oedipus, who gouges out his own eyes in the ancient drama, Eddy finds peace with his life choices.
“But it’s not a happy story,” warns Helfrich. “It’s not a piece everyone is going to be comfortable with. It is graphic, but it will make you question your own moral position.”
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