Human Frailty wears a latex mask and a dog-collar – a plaything of his cruel masters, Time, Fortune, and Love. Eye and mouth holes are crudely cut out of the mask as if perhaps to conceal horrific injuries beneath. The Prologue of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses concludes that Man is indeed a pitiful victim and in Benedict Andrews’ powerful staging for English National Opera at the Young Vic the reality, not the metaphor, is inescapable. The only question is whether or not our conquering hero Ulysses will remain a victim. We glimpsed him at the start, a silent, dusty warrior from Desert Storm or some such other conflict. Video screens now show a woman in distress. One half expects the message to kick in: “I miss you and love you. Come home safely.”
And as the dust-sheets are stripped away, home is revealed to be a fully functioning luxury apartment, glass encased on all sides and slowly revolving for optimum scrutiny. For Ulyssey’s wife Penelope it’s like living and waiting in a fish tank. Her restless suitors – lairy boys in smart grey suits – gawp lustfully; there’s a rotund figure in a menacing clown mask – the gluttonous Iro (Brian Galliford) – whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to eat junk food; even Penelope’s faithful old nurse Ericlea – a welcome return to the stage of Diana Montague albeit in a role most notable for its housekeeping – is a slightly sinister presence; and the Goddess Minerva, doubling Fortune (Ruby Hughes), mistress of disguise, is a resourceful imposter mirroring Penelope not only in dress but in movement and manner. There is no privacy, there is no love, only lust: Ulysses and Penelope’s home is an asylum for adulterers and thieves. The TV screens a never-ending war report (sound familiar?); the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Food and drink spatter the glass walls. There will be blood.
Of course, the startling modernity of what Andrews and his designer Börkur Jonsson present us with plays chillingly and brilliantly against the antique sonorities of Jonathan Cohen’s theorbo and wheezy organ flecked band. The vibrancy of his direction and the vividness of the playing is in itself startling while the stuttering recitatives and florid pyrotechnics of the vocal lines lend the words an emphatic but distorted immediacy. The dramatic intensity of the singing is exceptional. Every performance is a stand-out performance – and that unstinting and uninhibited commitment is as much a tribute to the director as it is to the artists themselves. The one feeds off the other.
I said there will be blood and there is. The waiting over, the ragged figure of Ulysses – a victim of “Gulf War Syndrome” is ever there was one – takes his bloody revenge under the full glare of a newsreel Steadycam. We can no longer hide behind stylisation and shrink from the reality and as Ulysseys takes a long hot shower, washing away years of dust and gore, a hopeful warmth is introduced into the hitherto stark white unforgiving lighting as husband and wife dare to believe in happiness once more. Pamela Helen Stephen and Tom Randle are quite extraordinary in this final scene. You could take away the music and they would still break your heart.