12 years in the making, the saga of Tantalus begins. But take a cushion

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The Independent Online

The work has been 12 years in the writing, six months in rehearsal and takes at least 10 hours to perform. And today, Tantalus, the epic cycle of Greek mythology that has become a labour of love for the Royal Shakespeare Company of Sir Peter Hall and Adrian Noble, will open on stage for the first time in Denver, Colorado.

The work has been 12 years in the writing, six months in rehearsal and takes at least 10 hours to perform. And today, Tantalus, the epic cycle of Greek mythology that has become a labour of love for the Royal Shakespeare Company of Sir Peter Hall and Adrian Noble, will open on stage for the first time in Denver, Colorado.

Critics from all over the world are being flown in for the world premiÿre of John Barton's dramatisation at the Denver Center for Performing Arts, which many thought would never make it to the stage. (At 10 hours, it is longer than the flight to Denver from London). They are advised to bring sandwiches - the 10-play cycle has been split into The Outbreak Of War, The War, and The Homecomings, which will begin at 10am and finish at about 10.30pm. The rest of the public will see the play in two, or three-day shifts, served, if requested, with a theatre supper accompaniment. Those who forget to bring a cushion shouldn't complain - Barton's original cycle stood at 16 rather than 10 plays.

Sir Peter told the Denver centre's programme magazine, Applause: "All right, it's three evenings, totalling about 10 hours. But it's clear now that it is terribly funny and terribly ironic and terribly unexpected. This is the longest short play that ever was, the funniest tragedy. This is the most comical and paradoxical war that anybody ever lost. It's all about paradox and opposites and the unexpected."

Tantalus tells a tale of the Trojan War, from the massacre at Mysia, to the arrival of the great wooden horse of Troy. It looks at the dilemma from both sides, and examines the aftermath of war - the personal dilemmas and political ramifications of homecoming .

Tantalus is a Greek mythical character punished by the Gods for stealing their secrets. He was consequently destined to spend eternity with a rock hanging precariously over his head, with food and drink in sight, but always - tantalisingly - out of reach. Barton says he "is a metaphor for what happens in the cycle and, more importantly, the world today".

The play is not your conventional Greek drama, however. It opens with a gathering of bikini-clad women enjoying drinks on a Mediterranean beach. There are no battle scenes, and no "epic stagings".

Sir Peter describes the cycle as a "shocking soap opera. Tantalus consists of 10 distinct plays. Each is really different, each evening is really different. And the characters in the 10 plays are markedly different. Do you find politics funny? Then come to Tantalus. Can sex be absurd? Then come to Tantalus. You'll get war, sex and politics," he said.

"This is a commitment. Audiences will cry, they'll laugh and they will get angry. But, primarily, they'll be stimulated by the laughter of recognition. If you watch any politician on television tonight, you ought to be able to relate it to Tantalus.It's not ancient, it's not tragic, it's not highbrow. And it's not long because it's funny."

The cycle was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early Eighties under Trevor Nunn, who is now running the National Theatre. But few British companies were able to commit the resources and time to bring it to fruition.

The RSC governor Donald Seawell offered to stage a co-production at the Denver Center, of which he is the founder and chairman. Sir Peter and his son Edward Hall direct an Anglo-American cast.

The production is due to come to Britain. It will arrive in Manchester in January and tour five venues before opening in London in April for four weeks. The British tour is made possible by a grant from the English Arts Council and the co-operation of the RSC.

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