REVIEW: King Priam at Cambridge Arts Theatre

The cast of King Priam. The cast of King Priam.

Thursday, May 29, 2014
9:24 AM

The English Touring Opera is at the theatre until Saturday, May 31, presenting Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

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Set in the ancient city of Troy, this is a story still gripping after 3,000 years. In an Olivier Award-winning production directed by James Conway, a perfect cast make the searing passion of love and war present and immediate.

Michael Tippett’s King Priam, first performed in 1962, can be described as a play that is sung, as much as an opera. The music lifts and carries the drama so that it wrenches your heart.

Starting the story earlier than the tale told in Homer’s Iliad, King Priam of Troy (a masterful and magnificent Roderick Earle) is told that his baby son will grow up to attack the city and kill his father. After some anguish (the word crisis comes from the Greek for decision) he decides that the baby, his second son, must be killed.

Of course, as with Oedipus, the more you do to avoid a prophecy, the faster you run to meet it. The baby is given to the family of a shepherd. However, he is reunited with his blood family as a young boy. They meet by chance out hunting and are impressed by his prowess.

Thus he grows up to be the playboy younger son Paris, who goes to Sparta and brings back Helen, thereafter known as Helen of Troy, though in fact, she was Helen of Sparta, wife of King Menelaus, who in fury launches a thousand ships.

Troy is indeed destroyed but it isn’t just King Priam who is slaughtered, it is also Priam’s favourite older son Hector, as well as Hector’s baby son. Roderick Earle as the broken Priam kissing the hands of Achilles, his son’s killer as he begs for the dead boy’s body embodies a universal sorrow.

Beautifully sung and superbly acted throughout, there are some glorious vignettes, such as when the chorus of slaves point out with cool irony that all that will happen to them when Troy falls is that they will be slaves to different masters.

There is also a vibrant scene between the three principal women as Troy falls: Andromache, Hector’s wife; Hecuba, Hector’s mother, and Helen. Andromache says in effect to Helen that the war isn’t over her - the Greeks don’t want her, they want Troy. Helen’s reply is simply: “I am Helen”. She feels that of course men will love her.

The characterisation by all three: Laure Meloy as Hecuba; Camilla Roberts as Andromache and Niamh Kelly as Helen is rich and real. The electricity between them is almost tangible. Three women: one who puts her royal duty first, one who puts her family first and one who thinks her purpose is to be loved.

A great story powerfully told, flawlessly sung, superbly acted. Unforgettable.

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