The Gospel at Colonus reveals authentic traditions at its heart
Reworking of Greek tragedy takes centre stage at EIF
This article is from 2010.
As a radical reworking of an ancient Greek tragedy takes to the stage at the EIF, Anna Millar meets its creator and gets an authentic flavour of the gospel traditions at its heart
His celebrated version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House cast dwarf actors opposite Amazonian women performers while his reimagining of Peter Pan using pint-sized puppets made audiences look anew at JM Barrie’s classic children’s tale. Now theatrical maverick Lee Breuer is returning to the Edinburgh International Festival with The Gospel at Colonus, a radical reworking of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus at Colonus.
Breuer and composer Bob Telson dreamt up the piece in the early 80s, inspired by a mutual love of history and music, reinterpreting the Greek tragedy with the traditions of gospel singing and modern America Pentecostal Christian theology.
This may sound like a weighty prospect, but the show has become an enduring success story, enjoying a Broadway run and being honoured with an Obie Award. Hollywood even came calling when PBS televised the original Philadephia production in 1985, with Morgan Freeman in the key role of the Messenger and Robert Earl Jones as Creon.
Today, as it continues to tour the world, it feels as dynamic and relevant as ever. The current cast includes such gospel, soul and blues superstars as the Blind Boys of Alabama (collectively portraying Oedipus), members of Harlem’s Inspirational Voices of Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Legendary Soul Stirrers and sibling sensations The Steeles.
As a theatrical alchemist, well-known for combining genres and styles, Breuer knew exactly what he wanted to create back in the 80s, and can barely hide his delight at that fact that, three decades on, some of the original line-up remains. ‘It’s an ecstatic, sung re-enactment of a culturally important story,’ explains Breuer with a wide, playful smile. ‘When we tour we try to take as many of the originals as we can with us. The cast come from all over the place, whether it’s Alabama or New York, and we often have little time to rehearse together. But we do it because we love the sense of celebration and excitement that’s still there for the show.’
Gospel’s genesis goes back to Breuer’s childhood. While holidaying in Greece and Turkey as a boy, he became fascinated by the country’s history and architecture, and during his time there stumbled upon an ancient theatre where Greek tragedies had once been performed. ‘Theatre has been like a religion for me ever since,’ he says.
Breuer never lost his fascination with the Greeks. As he grew up, and acquired a love of soul and blues music, he began to wonder how he could marry the two. ‘I was a big fan of gospel music and I realised that there were these interesting links between the Pentecostal Church service and Greek theatre,’ he says. ‘There’s a sense of catharsis to it all, and that’s a fascinating journey to have in the theatre. We all have these ancient voices and so it was about exploring all those oratories and really seeing what we could make of it.’
The show’s longevity, of course, speaks for itself, and while Gospel has won numerous accolades for its dramatic verve, it’s the rock ‘n’ roll strut and soul-laden swagger, at the heart of the uplifting spectacle that transforms the story from ancient Greek tragedy into modern parable.
Jeff Bolding, choral director of gospel ensemble the Inspirational Voices agrees. ‘It’s a retelling of a story that is as important now as it ever was,’ says Bolding. ‘Music has always been an important part of the worship experience – it helps the audience feel integrated. Whether it’s the processional or the anthem, it’s about picking songs that can engage: it prepares people for the word of God.’
Certainly, when I witness his gospel choir the day before, in the choir’s spiritual home, the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, there’s little doubt that it’s the performers who create the energy for the congregation. From slow, sweeping solos to toe tapping anthems, the choir’s performance provides a vivid taster for the spectacle and skill Edinburgh has to look forward to when The Gospel at Colonus arrives in town. Having queued outside for an hour waiting to get into the church, the excitement from the congregation is palpable, as regular worshippers clutch their hymnbooks and tourists, mostly seated on the balcony upstairs, gaze down at the pastor. As the Inspirational Voices enter singing, signalling the start of the sermon, people get to their feet, swaying and exclaiming. And whether in the darkest, most serious moments of the Pastor’s reading or the greatest moments of jubilation, the choir responds with thunderous vocals. For Bolding, this makes them the perfect accompaniments to Breuer’s visual and aural theatrical spectacle.
‘Gospel music has its origins in blues music but you also get elements of other types of sounds in there,’ he says. ‘That makes it so uplifting for the people listening to it.’ Better still, as Bolding points out, the choir brings its own unique history, flavour and theatricality to Edinburgh. ‘Gospel music is timeless and has such a lot of character of its own, which our choir really engages with. Lee [Breuer] uses that to create a new story from an old tale.’
After leaving the church, I happen to strike up a conversation with a woman who has seen Gospel on Broadway. It was something of an epiphany, she says.
‘I just couldn’t believe the colour and depth of it all,’ she remembers with a smile.
‘People will say it’s about one thing or another but really it’s about stories and the way those stories can be told through music – just this phenomenally passionate music. Whatever your religion or belief, that’s amazing.’
Amen to that.
The Gospel at Colonus, Edinburgh Playhouse, 473 2000, 21–23 Aug, 2.30pm (Sun/Mon) & 7.30pm, £8–£30.