“All could be well. Everything could be difficult.”
There’s a wonderful synchronicity in the arrival of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus at the Gate Theatre at the same time that the divisive Mr Burns is in residence at the Almeida, both plays toy wonderfully with ideas of cultural narrative and how stories get passed down through the generations. And it is tempting to think that had this opened first – with its reference point being classicist-friendly Greek tragedy as opposed to the apparently alienating The Simpsons – the response to that latter play might have been a little different with the larger theme already established in the mind.
Who knows though and in some respects, who cares. It really feels like there’s a current vein of theatre that is striking out on its own – it may leave critics scurrying away at intervals or declaring their worst nights ever but by the same token, one might argue that that is how these theatremakers feel whilst sitting through the latest lauded revival of a Noël Coward play (I may or may not have borrowed this idea from someone… ;-)). But at the Almeida, the Royal Court and now the Gate, you can find theatre that really is unafraid to be different – it’s not to say that it is automatically good but even the mere act of stretching what we know as theatre in the UK feels important.
Back to the play at hand though. Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus – presented here in a translation by David Tushingham – evokes the oldest school of storytelling as its cast of five form a Greek chorus to tell us the tale of the King of Crete on his way home from the battle of Troy. But separating truth from fiction is more difficult than it seems, myth intertwines with history, competing narratives strive for supremacy, perhaps fruitlessly so as it seems the pre-destined fates of us all are quite literally in the hands of the gods.
But the real joy is in the constantly surprising narrative flow and its many interchanges, real democracy in action as everything and every thread is explored. Schimmelpfennig’s thesis that we learn more from the way that we tell stories, the contexts in which they are framed, the larger issues that we want to explain away, than we do from the stories themselves. Ellen McDougall’s brilliantly inspired production crackles with a sense of play but also a sense of its own importance – for all the popping of balloons and scrawling of genitalia on the walls, there’s something urgently powerful at work here.