Rock star excesses are the stuff of legend. But for all the cars driven into swimming pools and TV sets thrown from hotel windows, it’s the genius recluses who fascinate the most. Which is why Scott Walker, Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan will always win out over some self-consciously styled boho brat buying themselves a drug habit and tabloid notoriety based on their supermodel girlfriends. For true poets, and for Walker and Wilson at least, one suspects it was all that time spent in recording studios – airless, windowless rooms where day and night merge into one – that caused them to crack up.
Director Robert Woodruff recognised the way latter-day rock and roll mythology could have been derived from classical roots, so much do our modern day pop idols walk like gods, with all the bad behaviour that goes with it. Which is why Woodruff’s American Repertory Theatre production of Orpheus X, a version of Orpheus and Eurydice in collaboration with composer Rinde Eckert and video artist Denise Marika, is underground in every way.
“The Greeks were very elemental,” says Woodruff, who arrives in town with Orpheus X this week. “There’s a reason why those stories have survived, and how they can still be so real for us today. I read a story about a man in a cab, and the idea came out of that, where Orpheus is a rock star in a cab which accidentally knocks down an equally famous poet, Eurydice. It’s about how it affects him until his manager sends him to Hades to find her. Unlike the actual myth, the two don’t know each other.”
A story, then, of existential crisis in a celebrity driven culture, and a step on after a quarter of a century from Jean Cocteau’s very Left Bank cinema version of the story. More recently, Manchester International Festival premiered the Ground beneath Her feet, a very formal adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s pan-global novel based on the myth. Having already inspired 2’s Bono to pen a song of the same name, here director Mike Figgis set a new score by Victoria Borisova-Ollas played by the Hale Orchestra alongside a dramatic reading by Alan Rickman and two other actors, framing everything with a brand new impressionistic film-scape.
If its rendering was a tad too formal, and pretty much as un-rock and roll as you can get, Woodruff is plugged into his source with a whole lot more authenticity. Woodruff, after all, has spent his working life messing things up in this way, reinventing the canon for contemporary audiences with increasingly audacious multi-media sweeps.
Woodruff first came to prominence in the mid 1970s, when, disenchanted with what he saw as a stuffy New York artistic establishment, he decamped to San Francisco, where he founded the Eureka Theatre. In 1976, Woodruff established the Bay Area playwrights Festival, a set-up in which he first came into contact with Sam Shepard.
As one of the first post rock and roll playwrights who served time as drummer in The Holy Modal Rounders, Shepard looked to the sort of Wild West outsider myths explored by Bob Dylan. No coincidence, then, that Shepard had already been hired by Dylan to work on the sprawling mess of a feature film that would end up as Renaldo and Clara. In 1975 Shepard had toured with Dylan’s all star epic meander across America, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which was to all intents and purposes directed by Jacques Levy, who would co-write Dylan’s album, Desire, and go on to be lyricist on that other epic of celebrity myth, Fame.
When woodruff met Shepard, the young playwright was better known in London than the United States, though their first collaboration, The Sad Lament Of Pecos Bill, an American b-centennial inspired piece for which Shepard penned the libretto, would change all that. For the next five years woodruff was Shepard’s champion, staging the American premier of Curse of the starving Classes in 1978, the world premiere of Buried Child the same year, and of true west in 1980. he also directed touring productions of tongues and Savage/Love, which Shepard co-authored with the late counter-cultural iconoclast, Joseph Chaikin (whose legendary Open Theatre company once featured Levy among its ranks).
Such degrees of separation go some way to explaining where Woodruff is coming from in his many collage-like deconstructions of the classics, which include a 1983 take on the Comedy Of Errors, which featured fire eaters and acrobats from circus troupe, The Flying Karamazov Brothers.
"Unity is overrated," he’s on record as saying. "Defining a whole and making all its pieces correspond to that oneness can lead to a stifling politeness. I'd rather take each moment and make it burn, make that colour very bright."
In composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist Eckert, who also takes Orpheus X’s title role, Woodruff has found an equally genre-busting foil.
“He’s remarkable,” Woodruff says of Eckert, who also wrote the play’s text. “Through him and through Denise we’ve got this mix of drama, opera and art.
For all its dramatic trappings, though, Woodruff remains intensely conscious of the play’s inherent profundity.
“I think it’s really deep investigation of loss and responsibility,” he says. “And how one incident can define one’s own existence and how it changes your whole way of living. Ultimately it’s about mortality. Sometimes it can be opaque, but that’s the great beauty of the work.”
Orpheus X, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 25-29, 8pm
The Herald, August 2008