The Gospel at Colonus
Greek tragedy set in an African-American Pentecostal church
This article is from 2010.
That this is a spectacle worth seeing, there can be no doubt. That the cast consists of an incredible collection of highly talented singers is equally apparent. That the idea of transporting a Greek tragedy to the setting of an African-American Pentecostal church service is a fascinating one is undeniable, but it is on this last point that this adaptation doesn’t quite add up.
As is acknowledged in the programme notes, it calls for ‘drastic metaphysical contortions of Sophocles’ to bring the story of Oedipus’ death from a polytheistic, pagan setting where justice is not served to a monotheistic, Christian world where death means redemption and joyful reunion with the one true God. For those who chose to ponder on this rather than simply being swept along in the bombast of the production and the music, this may well prove a contortion too far. For the Christian message to make sense, it is necessary to leave Sophocles’ original story far behind and see this as a stand-alone narrative. Doing this, however, removes a lot of the sense from the story, inextricably linked as it is to the preceding parts in the tale of Oedipus and the conventions of Athenian life and drama.
This disjunction would not be such a problem, were it not for the fact that the whole drama of the play is in the question of how Oedipus will die. It is a story light on action, heavy on contemplation - and as such can feel slow-moving at times. Moments of high emotion struggle to be involving, except when that emotion is joy and expressed through song, and the representation of Oedipus collectively by the four Blind Boys of Alabama and occasionally the narrator/messenger (played by the fantastic Rev Dr Earl F Miller) is confused and makes it difficult to gain any sense of character. Indeed, when a projection of the tiny, frail, lead Blind Boy Jimmy Carter appears high on a plinth on the backdrop, only to be lifted up to the heavens, whereupon a rainbow appears, it feels like the sublime has been made ridiculous. But there’s no time to question it for the audience, the more cynical half of which breathes a palpable sigh of relief when the moment feeds into an upbeat hymn of joy - something our tapping feet can definitely relate to, if not our hearts.
It’s these moments that save what could have been an unengaging show - when the energy on stage becomes irresistible and the rhythms and harmonies nothing short of divine - but they are too rare. Never one to pander to fear of controversy, Lee Breuer has created a play full of love-it-or-hate-it elements: the naff projected visuals being firmly in the latter category. But happily it is not a production without its own humour, for instance in the depiction of cruel king Creon’s henchmen as gangsters with long coats and spats, parroting their master’s lines, or the sight of three Blind Boys lying down on stage, collectively representing a dead Oedipus, tapping their feet in time to the song sung to mourn his death.
And it is that collision of two worlds and two cultures that is simultaneously the show’s most fascinating and most problematic element. When one of The Legendary Soul Stirrers croons to a dying Oedipus, ‘I know you had a hard time’, it could be a line from any soul song, but, in seeing how it strangely well it fits as an understated substitute for the overblown speechifying of Greek drama, you catch a glimpse of the method in Breuer’s madness.