Alex Massie

The Gospel at Colonus

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Taking Sophocles' least-known play and reinterpreting via the hymns and songs of gospel music is, damn it, just the sort of thing that you expect from Edinburgh* in August. Thankfully, Lee Breuer's plundering - adaptation is too limited a term - of Oedipus at Colonus is a monumental success. If you ever get the chance to see it in London, New York, DC, Chicago or wherever then for god's sake get yourself a ticket.

Most of the reviews of the Gospel at Colonus have focused, understandably, on the music and, unavoidably, on the tensions between Christian and classical Greek theology and you can certainly argue that the production loses some of its force in Act Two as Oedipus prepares for and accepts his end.

And yet taking liberties with the material can rarely have been as satisfying, and as punishingly powerful, as this. This is a show, anyway, in which commonalities of form and function are uncanny. The chorus, sung magnificently by Harlem's Inspirational Voices of Abyssinian, are alive and, as they should be, vital to the pageant.

But it's the link - unspoken but ever-present - between the helplessness of meagre man in Greece and the experiences of African-Americans in the cotton fields of what would become the Confederacy that provides the foundation for all else and ties these two seemingly distant worlds together. Injustice abounds, man is not free and, often literally, in chains. Oedipus's attempts to understand, let alone come to terms with, his predicament are placed in subtle counterpoint to the African-American story and so the gospel music and the pentecostal preaching become a means of coping with or mildly ameliorating an impossible, crushing, position.

That gives the Gospel at Colonus much of its undoubted power. So do the performances, notably from the Rev Earl Miller as the Pastor and the Blind Boys of Alabama, led by the 80 year-old Jimmy Carter as Oedipus and so, of course, does the music. Heck, even a matinee audience in Edinburgh was brought to its feet, whooping and hollering and almost clapping in time yesterday.

Clearly, the Christian interpretation of the tale asks us to believe in the consolation Oedipus finds in his last moments. The final spirituals - "Lift Him Up" and "Now Let the Weeping Cease" - are raucous and beautifully soothing respectively but there are other interpretations available. From an unbelievers' perspective the power of the music and the soaring voices increasingly reflect a yawning chasm between ritual and reality that is, in the end, unbridgeable.

The stirring gospel becomes, then, a reminder of human frailty and mankind's need to believe in some kind of consolation. The more beautiful the music, the starker the contrast between our desperate hopes and the ghastliness of the unfathomable void. Viewed from this perspective the entire proceedings become heavily ironic: the ideas of salvation and peace at last being but the final tricks played upon a man who has suffered enough already. Clinging to that last hope may be all we have, but suspecting that it's a false victory before an endless defeat is just another part of what makes this show either wondrously uplifting or, if you prefer, utterly shattering.

Like I say, if you get the chance make sure you go and see it.

*There's a neat symmetry here: the Gospel at Colonus appeared in a stripped-down, work-in-progress studio version on the Fringe 28 years ago. Now it's back with a cast of 40 as part of the International Festival. Not for the first or last time the two festivals support one another. They're not competitors but complements to one another.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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