Exciting rock opera gets bogged down in a retelling of a classic story

‘Achilles! Achilles! ACHILLES!’ Delirious, Iphigeneia (Thibaud Dooms) calls out the name of her betrothed. Her father Agamemnon has told her that the Greek hero will marry her, and she loses herself in an ecstatic daze. Not only because of love, but also because of the honor that her marriage will serve as the starting gun for a glorious campaign of conquest: the invasion of Troy, to bring back the abducted Helen. What she doesn’t know, however, is that not love, but death awaits her: the war requires a blood sacrifice instead of a wedding.

The beginning of Atropa, the new performance by directors Floor Houwink ten Cate and Naomi Velissariou, is crushing: next to the euphoric Ifigeneia, Helena herself (Annelinde Bruijs) is on stage, and sings to lament her fate as the most beautiful woman in Greece. Bruijs’ dark voice makes short work of the shrill girl’s happiness next to her; the blood-red latex in which the designers of MAISON the FAUX cloak the Greeks are a harbinger of the carnage to come; and the pumping beats of Joost Maaskant and Jimi Zoet drag you into a physical experience of all passion and pain.

Troy

As long as musicality predominates Atropa the performance gets under your skin. When Bruijs sings, or when Adanna Unigwe raps on a rousing beat about the fate of her Troy (‘slaughtered and parched and burned and raped / blackened, hanged, broken and leased’), the madness of war is inescapable. And also in some of the spoken scenes, the players and the music come to an exciting symbiosis: especially Dooms, Velissariou (as Klytaimnestra) and ‘Ntianu Stuger (as Kassandra) put enough dynamism and madness in their text treatment to do justice to rock -operatic approach to the staging. When Velissariou and Stuger face each other later in the play, it produces breathtaking fireworks.

As the piece progresses, however, the piece loses its primal power, because Houwink ten Cate and Velissariou increasingly fall back on straight-forward psychological drama, in long dialogue scenes in which the music only plays a role sporadically. That is clearly not their strength: in their game direction, the actors play predictable emotional lines, which do not offer any surprises due to the over-familiarity of the Greek source material.

And as soon as the spectacle of the decoration and the music no longer knocks you over, the lack of ideas of this adaptation also begins to be noticed. Tom Lanoye wrote Atropa in 2008 clearly in response to the War On Terror and the Second Gulf War: the unequal war between Troy and Greece is repeatedly seen as a ‘clash of cultures’. The directors do try to bring the text up to date by having all the Trojans played by black actresses, thus saying something about systemic racism and dealing with the colonial past, but it is an empty gesture: the script is clearly not made for that metaphor. Due to the excessive loyalty to a dated piece, Houwink ten Cate and Velissariou allow themselves to be curtailed too much, and their Atropa in yet another retelling of the classic tale.

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