Gaddafi: A Living Myth, Coliseum, London

Neither a hit nor a myth
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The Independent Culture

It was fitting that before the premiere of Gaddafi: A Living Myth, no one involved in this unlikely collaboration between Asian Dub Foundation, playwright Shan Khan, and English National Opera could agree on a term to describe the finished product. Asked whether his score was operatic, ADF's Steve Chandra Savale, who admitted little knowledge of the art-form but professed himself interested in it "as a concept", fired back: "Well, what is opera?" Meanwhile, the ENO website issued an optimistic advertisement for "an exhilarating collision of live music, theatre, and film".

Oiled by unprecedented media attention, the opening night of Gaddafi saw a heavily papered house drawn from backgrounds as "diverse" as Notting Hill, Hampstead and Islington. Opera-lovers unaccustomed to pop music started using terms like hip hop, ragga and dub with passable fluency. Still, no one could agree on what it was they had seen. Springtime for Gaddafi? Don't Cry For Me, Ronald Reagan? Muammar Mia? Gaddafi Superstar? (this was a line repeated several times on stage.) Was it a musical? Music theatre? Or simply a headline-grabbing folly?

Orchestrated by no less than three ghost-composers, Savale's score is based on a bedrock of bass guitar, drums and sampled sound-effects, with plaintive esclamazione for electric violin and oud, and the odd interjection of a harmonic minor scale from the ENO orchestra. There is little singing, though Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Fatima) delivers her numbers prettily, punchily and with a clarity of diction that eludes most of the non-singing cast. Act I is constructed as though for a CD, and the change of tone and tempo between each number is artful. Act II, however, flounders as miserably as the libretto.

Where Alice Goodman used the concentrate of a diplomatic visit for her psychological analysis of Richard Nixon, Khan assays a history of modern Libya. In a series of flashbacks from the Tripoli bombings of 1986, Act I touches on the Italian annexation of 1911 ("Feel the boot of the North!"), the assassination of Omar Al-Mukhtar, the Six Day War, and the 1969 coup. Act II covers the shooting of Yvonne Fletcher, the 1986 Berlin disco bombing (described in the libretto as responsible for the death of "one American Serviceman", when two servicemen and a Turkish civilian were killed, 230 injured, and 50 left permanently disabled), the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, and, finally, Gaddafi's meeting with Tony Blair in 2004. ("We're both living in a state of emergency. Urgent measures are needed to save our democracy.")

Khan's biographical tableaux bring us no closer to a man variously described as visionary or mad. Though mention is made of Gaddafi's donations to the IRA and the UDA, his human rights record is fudged, and the device of using a foreign correspondent to report off-stage events is dreadfully lazy. Gaddafi's monologues, largely written in couplets, are yet more problematic. Here's the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms on rhyme: "It echoes sound and is thus a source of aesthetic satisfaction." Really? It's almost impossible to make lines such as "I can sense the bombs from afar, the desert wind is my only working radar" (emphasis on the final syllable) sound less than unaesthetic. Especially if, like Ramon Tikaram, whose physical impersonation of Gaddafi is well observed, you deliver them in the style of Ian McShane declaiming King Lear in a nightclub.

Though director David Freeman and designer Es Devlin have done their best to make Gaddafi a polished production, Hakeem Onibudo's gauche choreography undermines their efforts. The Revolutionary Nuns bump and grind like dance-hall queens, making their "sweet leader" appear as fatuous as Ali G, which is very much at odds with the awkward business of depicting Lockerbie and the death of Yvonne Fletcher. Given the limitations of the libretto, and its simplistic moral equivalence, I doubt Freeman could have handled these moments more tastefully. Still, I am surprised that footage of Fletcher's murder, hitherto unbroadcast by the BBC, was shown on stage.

If Gaddafi: A Living Myth does little to demythologise its subject, it does reveal the cowardice of ENO in dealing with this unhappy bequest from its former artistic director. For all the bluster about "redefining opera", I'd be amazed if the company did not fully expect Gaddafi to bomb, especially after three years of workshops, and the loss of two directors.

But that's the thing. You can risk offending a dead policewoman's friends and family. You can risk offending survivors of the Berlin bombing. You can risk offending the bereaved of Flight 103 and relatives of those killed on the ground in Scotland. You can risk offending Libyans who grew up under Gaddafi. You can risk making fools of a respected playwright and pop star in a naked attempt to look hip and inclusive. You can even risk an empty house. But you can't risk the furore that would accompany the cancellation of a publicly funded project from two British-Asian writers with no previous experience of opera.