Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre, Saturday 21st August 2010. The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Legendary Soul Stirrers, The Steeles in retelling of Greek tragedy reviewed by Tom Lennie

The Gospel At Colonus Live At Edinburgh International Festival

Take an ancient Greek tragedy - Oedipus At Colonus, the mythical story of the king of Thebes first performed in Athens in 401 BC - and give it such a radical makeover as to transform it into a modern Pentecostal gospel scenario. That is the essence of The Gospel At Colonus. This revisionary theatrical production was created back in 1983 by director Lee Breur and composer Bob Telson, since which time it's been performed all over the world - to vastly divergent responses - and not least in Athens itself, some years ago.

The original story sees Oedipus fulfilling a prophecy that said he would kill his father and marry his mother, and thus bring disaster on his city and family. Following incestuous relations with his new wife, he finds that his daughters are also his very sisters. Later discovering that his wife has killed herself, Oedipus takes two pins from her dress and gouges his eyes out. He wanders blindly through the country, ultimately dying at Colonus. Tale of horror, pain and darkness this most surely is, yet while the basic storyline is apparent in the modern rewrite, the new plot takes on a Christian redemptive theme which turns tragedy into a theme of hope and life. For classical purists this will seem disrespectful to the original (one reviewer used the term "blasphemous"), but to any lover of gospel music, and especially to anyone with a personal experience of Christian redemption, it's heartwarming and life-giving.

The Legendary Soul Stirrers
The Legendary Soul Stirrers

The illustrious cast consists of four longstanding American gospel groups - The Blind Boys Of Alabama, The Legendary Soul Stirrers (which groups date back to the 1920s and '30s respectively!), The Steeles and the 20-strong The Inspirational Voices Of The Abyssinian Baptist Church from New York, along with various solo performers. Together, they make a welcoming and colourful set, the Steeles being draped in elegant blue suits, the Blind Boys in silver attire, and the Abyssinian choir in an elaborate array of traditional African dress. To guys like the Blind Boys, especially, the association with The Gospel At Colonus is a long and influential one, dating back to the '80s, and adding depth and dimension to their legacy, while also helping popularise black gospel to audiences worldwide.

The Edinburgh show was part of the city's International Festival, the most spectacular and multicultural of the Scottish capital's world renowned summer Festivals, tickets for which were priced at up to 30. Yet, on the second of their five performances over one weekend, the 3,000 seat Playhouse Theatre was virtually jam-packed, with a largely middle-aged audience eager to witness this two-and-a-half hour extravaganza. The amphitheatre backdrop was sturdy and sufficient; the acting roles were demonstrative and well-rehearsed (not least that of the Messenger/Preacher, played magnificently by the Rev Dr Earl F Miller), and the combination of focused lighting and dazzling costume hues made for an appealing spectacle. But it was the music that made the show great. Backed merely by an organ, guitar, drums and a grand white piano, on which various of the Blind Boys tinkered), from the opening happy-go-lucky "Live Where You Can", with its swaying, melodious tones, to the slow funk of "How Shall I See You Through My Tears", to the a cappella doo-wop of "Come Back Home" and beyond, swathes of delightful gospel sounds poured forth from the sonically adept gospel teams placed across the tiered stage.

The Gospel At Colonus Live At Edinburgh International Festival

Various soloists proved worthy of a name-call - Jevetta Steele (female soloist in The Steeles), Bernadette Mitchell, Jay Caldwell (of The Gospel Ambassadors) and Caorlyn Johnson-White, each of whom delighted hearers with their gifted vocal tones. Also playing a prominent part was Jimmy Carter, lead singer of the Blind Boys of Alabama. Now well into his 70s, Carter both looked and sounded weak. I wonder if playing the leading role of Oedipus was really too much for him - his tottering around the multi-stepped stage looked less than safe, and although his performance was praiseworthy, and at times deliberately amusing, his singing voice was often tired and gravelly compared with that of his team mates, who were in fine united form.

The storyline was straightforward enough to follow, and the throwing in of numerous authentically humourous moments helped lighten up proceedings at various unexpected points. A good pace was kept up throughout, the constantly-changing line-up allowing for not a moment's lapse of concentration. After a 20-minute interval the second Act opened with some fine bluesy material, in "Lift Me Up" and "Stand By Me". Half-way through this set the mood shifted suddenly and triumphantly from emotive songs of grief and lamentation on Oedipus's death, to the heights of unadulterated praise on "Lift Him Up Higher" and "Crying Hallelujah". There had been a wonderful eruption of holy joy in Act 1, which encouraged a degree of hand-clapping and feet stomping from the generally reserved Edinburgh audience. But in these closing scenes, accompanying the resurrection of Oedipus (a theme alien to the original story), the cast went wild in abandoned celebration (as exemplified in the gyrating leaps and twists of the acrobatic choir leader), and before you knew it, almost 3,000 people were on their feet and joining in - many literally dancing in the aisles. It was a wonderful moment of spontaneity, which seemed to startle even the main players, who after a brief pause jumped right in with an encore! I left the theatre feeling thrilled and thoroughly entertained, well aware I had witnessed a truly unique performance that would stay with me for a long time. CR

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