16th February 2001 at 00:00
The ancient Greeks are with us still. Characters from the myths colour our language and provide us with images. The word "tantalise" has long lost its connection with the king who thought he could outwit the gods and share their ambrosia with mere mortals. Tantalus's punishment was (according to which source you choose) to be threatened with a rock eternally on the point of falling on his head or tempted for ever by water and delicious fruits always just out of reach.

Everyone has heard of the Trojan horse and the image still stands for betrayal and the surreptitious introduction of alien ideas. Helen of Troy is a byword for unmatchable beauty, and thousands of people who have never read Christopher Marlowe know the line: "The face that launched a thousand ships". Marlowe and Shakespeare were brought up with the classics, but the whole story of the Trojan war was unavailable even to them.

John Barton, scholar and theatre director, has spent 20 years writing his version of the story, drawing on many sources, including Euripides, Aeschylus and Homer - and filling in the gaps from his own imagination. Out of his 15-hour epic, Peter Hall has fashioned a 10-play, nine-hour saga which he has directed with his son, Edward. It is called Tantalus, which Barton sees as a metaphor for the human condition.

The result is a gripping narrative, introduced in a well-tried educational manner, by relating the characters to us, the modern audience. The storyteller is a vendor of tourist knick-knacks on a modern beach, but soon he is donning a mask and taking on roles. Unfortunately the young women on the beach describe themselves as "educated girls" - an unlikely self-description - but the way they become gradually involved as a fully-fledged chorus is masterly. Eventually they are the women of Troy, victims of Greek brutality. This is also a demonstration of the progression of theatre, from simple storytelling to full-blooded action.

The Halls give the characters masks, which is both liberating and distancing. Barton's language is not poetic (except when he borrows from another write such as Shakespeare) and can be almost banal. The famous Marlowe line becomes "the egg that launched a thousand ships" as what seems to be a golden rugby ball stands for the product of the union between Leda and Zeus, Helen's parents.

There is humour - although the repeated rapes cannot be made successfully into a joke - and some wonderful moments of theatre, notably when the Trojan horse is dragged into Troy. All we see are huge wheels and many ropes, but it is an electric moment, helped by the lighting - which is excellent throughout. Let students learn about the Greeks, but remember that some bits are pure Barton - although there is an ancient source for the idea that Helen stayed in Egypt while a decoy was at the centre of the decade-long war.

Tantalus, produced by the Denver Centre for Performing Arts in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, is at Nottingham, before going to Milton Keynes, Newcastle, Norwich and, in May, the Barbican in London. Information: 01789 403440.

I saw Tantalus at the Lowry in Salford. As well as two theatres, this new arts centre has several galleries and is an exciting building in its own right. ArtWorks is an interactive gallery where children can turn drawings into movement or movements into paint. Elsewhere there are Lowrys - naturally - and just now a dazzlingly theatrical exhibition of work by Italian Futurist, Fortunato Depero, Carnival of Colour. The Lowry: 0161 876 2000.

The gamelan has made an extraordinary transition from exotic instrument to familiar educational tool. Participants in the free Javanese Dance, Music and Mask Workshops at the Royal Festival Hall next week will be able to explore the Javanese gamelan there. Children aged five to 11 are invited to explore animal movements and characters in Javanese mask dance, which they will no doubt find as liberating as the Tantalus actors do. Tickets: 020 7960 4242.

Heather Neill

Next week in Friday: free cinema tickets for teachers - collect your first token The telephone number for London Theatre Tours, featured last week, is 020 7226 4927.

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