Photo by P. Switzer

Last year at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA), director Sir Peter Hall premiered playwright John Barton’s 10-part work about the Trojan War, Tantalus. An authorial reinterpretation, not an adaptation, of surviving Greek tragedies — one augmented by ancient commentaries about both the war and the myths the tragedies referred to — Tantalus could be seen as the capstone to Barton’s long career, which had included another Hellenic epic, The Greeks. (An adaptation of 10 Greek plays, written with Kenneth Cavander in 1979, The Greeks appeared locally as a two-part, six-hour production directed by Ron Sossi at the Odyssey Theater in 1999.)

Tantalus played to mostly enthusiastic reviews both in Denver and in Great Britain, where a subsequent production opened in London. Barton, however, has bitterly denounced Hall’s staging as a truncated product that violated his own original intent of presenting Tantalus in two parts over two days. Hall and Colin Teevan ended up writing additional dialogue to Tantalus, yet pared down Barton’s saga from 15 hours to 10, which allowed it to play over the course of a one-day marathon.

Barton was furious and broke off his 50-year friendship with Hall, a bond they had first forged while students at Cambridge and later reaffirmed in 1961, when Hall persuaded him to leave his chair at that university and help him launch the Royal Shakespeare Company. Tantalus’ length makes it unlikely to become a staple with many theater companies. Still, as it often happens these days, a team of filmmakers recorded the six-month-long rehearsals in Denver leading up to Tantalus’ opening, and their documentary airs Sunday as part of PBS’s Stage on Screen series.

As a tell-all film, Ben Phelan and Dirk Olson’s
Tantalus: Behind the Mask is benignly respectful of the principals, cast members and production designers
interviewed onscreen, often resembling one of those L.A. Times “behind the scenes” movie trailers that so cutely
reveal what talented and playful people Hollywood folk are. (Apparently conceived as a flattering backstage
chronicle, it does everything it can to avoid turning into something like a Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s unsparing look at the demented goings-on behind the making of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.) So Behind the Mask practically backs into a Christopher Guest–type mockumentary along the lines of Waiting for Guffman, as Hall’s project is riven by both Barton’s abandonment and the abrupt, wordless departure of wunderkind co-director Mick Gordon. (As if this weren’t enough, lead actor John Carlisle had also walked out of the show over the issue of masks being used for most of the major roles.)

Here’s composer Mick Sands scrounging around a local auto-parts junkyard for brake discs that will bring just the kind of ding that Tantalus’ percussion-heavy score needs; there’s Sir Peter, who looks like a British Burl Ives, silently reading a fax from Gordon’s agent announcing his client’s withdrawal from Tantalus.

To be fair, Phelan and Olson connect with the irony that almost any line from the play can be recited against the backdrop of the production’s infighting and that the mere name Tantalus conjures images of hubris, torment and unobtainable goals. “Though all that we suffer is not of our own making, what we make of it is ours,” one character proclaims from the stage — words that seem to echo all the way back to London. The stakes in Denver were enormous: Hall, then 69, was sitting on a $10 million budget after failing to raise the capital in Europe; the DCPA’s money offer was his only chance of realizing a
project that Barton had spent 17 years working on. For his part, Barton’s contract allowed Hall to make script changes in his absence, and when Barton later decamped from Denver, an assistant reported to him on any alterations of his script. The problem was that the playwright didn’t want a single word changed.

Hall, in a phone interview from England, told the Weekly that Barton was afraid of trying to finish the work.

“What you had was an author who was quite scared by what he had done,” Hall said. “He’d come to Denver with a script that didn’t have a beginning or an end.” In a diplomatic, soothing, well-fed voice, Hall at first downplayed the existence of ego conflicts during rehearsals, then finally allowed that things were not all rosy in the Rockies. “There was so much material that we could have run three whole days,” he said. “Wagner’s Ring went backward to the creation of the world. John was
doing the same thing, and I told him, ‘John, you don’t have to include the creation of the world — we’ll just take that for granted.’”

Before long, Hall’s irritation with Barton’s and
Gordon’s desertion of the production came through in

“These were two cowardly acts,” Hall says. “Mick Gordon was a coward, because he decided he couldn’t continue with this [project]. But he didn’t let anyone know this — he put on an outward appearance of happiness. He suffered the same attack of cowardice that John Barton had.”

Yet there was also a ruminating, regretful tone to Hall’s words when he spoke of his old colleague Barton, with whom he had created another epic so long ago, the celebrated The Wars of the Roses, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963. “He’s a very dear friend, and this was his great life’s work that he’d never finished. Half of
him didn’t want it done. After the first three weeks of
rehearsal, the huge job became clear to him and he
became quite scared.”

Barton has been quoted as saying he hopes that the full Tantalus will one day be produced as a TV series.

“He doesn’t wish to speak to me unless I apologize for what I did to his work, which I won’t,” Hall said. “I love the man, but I think I saved the day and made his play work and be a huge success in Denver and, most important, in London. I wasn’t trying to do the Peter Hall Show, I was trying to do the John Barton Show, and I think I succeeded.”

Hall jauntily remarked that he will use techniques he developed while working on Tantalus on other large
productions — “I’ve done quite a lot of biggies in my life, epics.” Still, the first directing job he took upon returning to London after his latest blockbuster was a three-character Simon Gray play, followed by his by-the-numbers, made-to-walk-out-on Romeo and Juliet presented here at the Ahmanson Theater.

Today, Hall professes boredom with questions about Tantalus’ backstage dramas. “We shouldn’t let you into
the kitchen,” he sighs about critics and stage reporters. “It should be enough to taste the sauce and not know what went into it.” Tantalus himself may have muttered these words as he served his son in a casserole to the gods. But in their own way, of course, such personality clashes of people like Hall, Barton and Gordon eventually take on a mythic quality themselves. The Denver contretemps may have lacked the grandeur of Greek tragedy, but the very fact that their oversize characters owed their misfortunes to themselves and not to divine cruelty makes them all the more fascinating to us.

TANTALUS: Behind the Mask | KCET | Sunday, December 30, 9 p.m.

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