Idomeneus, King of Crete, is a character in Homer’s Iliad who fought in the Trojan War and returned to his island alive and well. His story was later expanded to include some dramatic events on his return. There was a dreadful storm that sunk 79 of his 80 ships before he could land in Crete and in desperation, he promised to the god Poseidon to sacrifice the first living thing he saw on landing if he could be saved. He was saved and the first person he saw on land was his son Idamantes.
Other characters and love triangles were added to the myth and Idomeneus had a dozen operas written about him in the 18th century. That’s chicken feed compared to some other Greek and Roman heroes who had more than a hundred operas written about them in the same period. The only opera about him that has survived is Mozart’s Idomeneo of 1781 which has a happy ending. Idomeneus does not sacrifice his son and after some negotiations, he is allowed to retire and his son lives happily ever after with the Trojan Princess Ilia.
Michelle Monteith, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O'Connell and
Idomeneus Chorus, photo by Jose JohnIf opera composers dropped Idomeneus story in the Aegean Sea, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig did not follow suit. He has written Idomeneus and brought the legend back on the stage.
Idomeneus can be described as the recitation by a Greek chorus of the myth of Idomeneus and the many variations that may exists or are imagined by Schimmelpfennig.
Ten actors are lined up on the stage in front of a bare, gray wall. There is no other set but there are lighting variations.
The actors are dressed in gray with gray dust on their faces and on their clothes. They look alike. They have no names but you can at times recognize which mythological figure is speaking. When they speak, they are identified in the script as A Man, Another Man, A Woman, Two Women, Two Men and so on.
The play opens with a description of Idomeneus’s arrival in Crete after the ten-year Trojan War and his promise to Poseidon. Schimmelpfennig brings in the Argonaut Nauplius whose son Palamedes was unjustly killed in Troy. He is taking revenge on all the Greek heroes of the war by seducing their wives.
Stuart Hughes, Jakob Ehman, Frank Cox-O'Connell and Idomeneus Chorus,
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Idomeneus butchers his son Idamantes and he is hanged. Not true, we are told. His wife was faithful; he did not butcher his son. But Nauplius is there in Idomeneus’s bedroom and he kills Idomeneus and his wife and his son. But you cannot kill a king and we cannot know what is real and what is imagined. Just like in a myth.
The couple talk about the past. Their son Idamantes got a girl pregnant and then left her. Now he is in love with Electra, the daughter of Agamemnon.
A whale is found on the shore that has a pregnant cow inside it which gives birth to a wolf-calf, a monster which can talk and is called Idamantes. The monster claims to be Idomeneus’s child and is in love with Electra. The monster becomes a shark and disappears. Where are we? What is going on? We understand what they are saying but not what is happening.
The sacrifice of Idamantes brings on a plague on Crete and Idomeneus is exiled.
This is a sampling of the world that the chorus describes in short sentences of dialogue with frequent changes in the number of speakers. Although there are many variations in the story, it is concentrated on the return of Idomeneus and its consequences.
Director Alan Dilworth is faithful to the text and the ten actors do excellent work in their recitation. As a theatrical work, I found it more intriguing than enjoyable. The performance lasts about an hour and I doubt very much that one could absorb more variations on the ancient myth.
The performance ends with the cast dancing to Greek bouzouki music that has nothing to do with the movements of the dancers. Where are Anthony “Zorba the Greek” and Alan Bates when you need them?
The cast is as follows: Akosua Amo-Adem, Alana Bridgewater, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Laura Condlin, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jakob Ehman, Kyra Harper, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros and Michelle Monteith.
Idomeneus by Roland Schimmelpfennig in a translation by David Tushingham continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca.