Stop me if you've heard this one: Orpheus, son of the muse Calliope and the sun-god Apollo (or, if you prefer it, the Thracian king Oeagrus), was the greatest poet and musician of all time. When his wife, Eurydice, was killed by a snake, he descended into the Underworld, and used his music to charm Hades into letting him take her back to the world of the living. Hades agreed, on condition that Orpheus didn't look at Eurydice until she was safely in sunlight. She followed him up towards the surface; but as he arrived, he looked over his shoulder to check she was still there, and she vanished. Subsequently, Orpheus was torn apart by maenads.
The myth of Orpheus has been retold many times, in many forms. Musicians, naturally, have been particularly fond of it - Monteverdi's and Gluck's are the most famous operas, but if you include the many parodies the tale has inspired, there have been more than 70 other versions, from Peri's Euridice of 1600 (the first extant opera) to Harrison Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus in 1986. The 14th-century poem "Sir Orfeo" made it a charming (and happy) Celtic romance. It has been done as a surreal, playful tragedy of mirrors and dreams in Jean Cocteau's poetic film Orphee; as a colourful slice of Brazilian carnival life, with a tram driver killing his girlfriend and himself, in the film Black Orpheus. Tennessee Williams brought us hell on earth in a Mississippi town in Orpheus Descending. You could even argue that Alice in Wonderland was sort of inspired by it (what is the tumble down the rabbit-hole but a descent into the underworld? And Cocteau's mirrored fantasy must owe something to Through the Looking-Glass).
All of a sudden, Orpheus seems to have come into his own, with productions of Monteverdi's opera and Balanchine's ballet, an Orpheus symposium - featuring 40 Orphic events - taking place in Athens this month, and ATC's staging of a new version by Kenneth McLeish arriving at the Lyric, Hammersmith, after two months touring Greece, Northern Ireland and England.
Clearly, this is a myth with universal appeal, but which has particular resonances for us, living at this moment in history. At any rate, that's the sort of spiel you expect from Nick Philippou, ATC's artistic director and director of the new production. As it turns out, though, he is suspicious of that sort of thinking, an attitude he developed while working on ATC's previous collaboration with McLeish, a translation of a little-known play by Euripides, Ion - The Lost Boy Found. Together with the Greek theatre company Piramatiki Skini, ATC put on two productions, one in Greek, one in English, both touring at the same time, the Greek one visiting England while the English one visited Greece: "It was a nightmare. Trying to understand one another - not linguistically, but culturally - was very, very extraordinary. But it was," he adds, "a success."
From this experience, Philippou "got slightly disenchanted with the idea of the universality of theatre - the idea that you can do Hamlet and it can mean everything to people now." Myths he describes as "a kind of template for the way that we might feel and think about certain issues, like death, loss, grief, longing and aspiration." Any particular version of a myth, on the other hand, will be addressed to an audience and a time - in his plays, Euripides was speaking about Athens to Athenians, and there's no reason why we should recognise ourselves in his words as they would have. "I'm not saying that those plays now are irrelevant. I'm saying that there's another way of approaching those myths and those plays. I'm saying, actually we can make the bloodlines between the plays and our audience stronger and clearer by actually intervening in the text."
From this conviction of the particularity of theatre, there sprang the idea of commissioning new writers to produce their own responses to great plays of the past. The first fruits of this policy were seen earlier this year in ATC's staging of a new Faust by Mark Ravenhill (author of Shopping and Fucking, and the man hired by the BBC in its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep This Life going). This Faust mixed camcorders, the Internet and Michel Foucault with drugs and gay sex in California motels: a clever and witty drama which had, however, few obvious links with either Marlowe or Goethe.
Philippou defends the apparent tenuousness of this Faust's connection to the story we know: "I think we felt that as much of the Faust legend as could have survived did survive in our work, because we couldn't write a Faust about God." He adds: "It's very interesting that young people found Faust very effective, because it seemed to talk in a pessimistic way that Goethe would not have recognised. Goethe's [play] was such a paean to humanism, and I don't think Mark and I felt that, really. I don't think we felt that optimistic about the world."
But thrusting modernity is not what he wants to achieve. In answer to the question of commissioning contemporary plays, he says: "This is an attempt to use the past. I think one of the great problems with some new writing in this country at the moment is that it wants to be new, it wants to break forward... It's very rare that new writing tours extensively. New writing has its home at the Royal Court, it's lauded there, it will then have no other significant productions. Very few plays tour because there isn't a kind of universality in them, either in their philosophical framework or their formal framework."
Universality doesn't necessarily imply universal appeal: "One of the things that these old stories do," Philippou reckons, "is they create an alienating effect, they distance an audience from their immediate concerns." So Kenneth McLeish's Orpheus is written as a straightforward Greek tragedy, with all the attendant apparatus - chorus, long speeches, prologue spoken by a god. The project began, in fact, as an attempt to "do a Jurassic Park" on Euripides' lost treatment of Orpheus.
The final result has been through a number of filters, though. Using money from the European Commission's Kaleidoscope fund, established to encourage multinational collaborations, McLeish and Philippou spent 12 months workshopping the piece with young Irish actors in Dublin. The look of the production - which Philippou describes as "a kind of peasant circus" - was determined by the Greek designer Apostolos Vettas (who also worked on ATC's Ion), while the score is a salmagundi of Thracian sounds on Irish instruments, composed by Kostas Vomvolos.
The finished play, premiered in September in Thessaloniki, the current European City of Culture, shouldn't be easy to pin down to any one culture: "What we wanted to do was try and find a way of telling the story in the most potentially fluid way, so that an audience can come to it and say, `This play is for me about grief', another member of the audience can come to it and say, `This play for me is about loss' or `This play is for me about belief, faith'."
So that's, perhaps, why myths endure - not because they contain some eternal truth, but because they avoid any definite statements at all; they're vessels waiting to be filled. And Orpheus is a myth about music - the most abstract art of all, eternally evading interpretation - and hence even more suggestive, more open-ended. Perhaps that's what Kenneth McLeish is getting at in the final lines of his play, when the nymph Dryas sums it all up: "It's myth. Myth's all there is. / Welcome the unexpected. It's up to you."
Kenneth McLeish's `Orpheus': 13 Nov, Medina Theatre, Newport, Isle of Wight (01923 527020); 14-15 Nov, Old Town Hall, Hemel Hempstead (01442 242827); 18 Nov- 6 Dec, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, London (0181-741 2311).