Gospel revival for Oedipus myth

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

  • Published
Greek tragedy gets the Pentecostal preacher treatment in Gospel at Colonus
Image caption,
Greek tragedy gets the Pentecostal preacher treatment in Gospel at Colonus

The Gospel at Colonus has been to Edinburgh before.

The show, which takes Greek tragedy and gives it an African-American gospel church setting, appeared on the Fringe as an experimental work almost 30 years ago.

Avant-garde director Lee Breuer stuck with the idea, despite it not really setting Edinburgh alight the first time.

It went on to play on Broadway, get nominated for a Tony award and launch the career of actor Morgan Freeman.

The Gospel at Colonus has been a phenomenal success around the world and now it is back in the Scottish capital for a large-scale production at the Edinburgh International Festival.

It is based on the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus at Colonus, in which the sinner king who killed his father and married his mother comes home to die.

The secular tale is told here in the form of a revival meeting with the narrative driven along by a real Pentecostal preacher.

One of America's most popular gospel groups, The Blind Boys of Alabama, collectively play Oedipus.

The cast also features the Chancel Choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the Legendary Soul Stirrers.

Breuer, 73, said he had the idea when he was hitchhiking in Greece 50 years ago.

He saw a connection between the theatre of ancient Greece and the service at African-American baptist churches.

Breuer said: "It became incredibly interesting to realise that Aristotelian catharsis - the revelation that comes over an audience through pity and terror - was identical to what the church calls 'getting happy'.

"This is where they sing and clap themselves into a trance and sometimes speak in tongues or see visions."

Breuer said that although Greece was believed to be the birthplace of drama, the Greeks took the idea from Egypt.

Image caption,
Lee Breuer first brought the show to Edinburgh 28 years ago

"There was a conspiracy for 300 or 400 years to make Greek culture very white. It wasn't," he said.

"Many scholars have said that what we have created is probably closer to what Greek tragedy was actually like in 400 BC than we have ever seen."

Two years ago the Gospel came "full circle" by performing at the Herod Atticus Odeon, at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, just metres away from where the Sophocles tragedy was first performed.

And Breuer, who has had recent Edinburgh success with Peter and Wendy and Doll House, has also come full circle by returning with a show he first brought in 1982.

It was then a 45-minute "work-in-progress", which appeared at the Assembly Rooms without any of the cast which have since become associated with it.

Breuer said: "What happened was James Fenton, the former Oxford professor of poetry, went nuts about it and decided to take us to the South Bank Show.

"We did the South Bank Show in London and took the tape to Brooklyn Academy and they funded us.

"From there we got Morgan Freeman, we got the Blind Boys, we got the Soul Stirrers. That was the beginning."

Breuer said it was now "hard to afford Mr Freeman", probably the best-known African-American actor in the world.

Some of the cast have died but those who remain are keen to carry on performing.

But Breuer said: "People are getting old. We don't want to be doing eight shows a week. So we do festival performances. Four performances is plenty."

The director said he felt comfortable in Edinburgh where the criticism of his work is "a bit more intelligent" than in his native New York.

However, he does wonder whether the audience in the Scottish capital will be able to throw themselves into the Pentecostal church service.

"We are trying to get people up on their feet and clapping and dancing and accompanying us," he said.

"We don't know how far the audience is going to go in Scotland."

"In Russia, they got up and danced. We shall see."

The Gospel at Colonus is at the Edinburgh Playhouse from Saturday 21 August to Monday 23 August.