Seneca’s original retelling of the Greek myth of Thyestes opens at the palace of Mycenae, with a tormented spirit moaning about the Underworld at length and in ancient meter.
This Thyestes begins in an empty white room, an iPod charging on the floor in the corner, with three guys in jeans talking idly about fucking and Monkey Magic.
This is not the fabled House of Atreus as we know it. There’s no business about a golden ram or a chorus of Argive elders. Instead, here’s an adaptation of Thyestes that doesn’t so much ‘speak to now’ as scream to it.
In the story, twin brothers Atreus (Mark Winter) and Thyestes (Thomas Henning) murder their half-brother and heir to the throne Chryssipus (Chris Ryan). It’s the beginning of a long, blood-spattered sibling rivalry. Revenge is met with revenge is met with revenge is met with revenge until, finally, the ever-hospitable Atreus invites Thyestes to a ‘reconciliation banquet’… at which he is served and unwittingly eats his own butchered children without so much as a tossed green salad as a side dish.
In between scenes, LED displays fill us in on the plot details of the original myth. But there’s a thrilling friction between what we read and the dozen self-contained scenes that play out on stage. Atreus and Thyestes play table tennis, watch television and listen to Wu-Tang Clan. And, apart from anything else, those trisyllabic Latin names are never uttered out loud. The script, co-written by Winter, Henning, Ryan and director Simon Stone, is kept as fresh as an open wound with semi-ad-libbed dialogue every night. Much of it – especially when we drop in on the brothers in mid-conversation at the opening of the show – is hilariously banal. The uncomfortable realisation that all this forces us to confront is that these men exist not in the ancient world but in our own godless age and universe, and that the atrocities they commit are all-too real.
As a study in suffering, Thyestes reaches deep into the realm of opera, and Henning and Ryan convey the distress of their characters so potently that it seems impossible the actors themselves aren’t also in distress. Ryan plays a number of piteous creatures and puts in a heartrending rendition of Schubert’s ‘Der Doppelgänger’, while Henning transforms himself into a shocking monument of anguish. Winter’s unremitting performance as Atreus – it’s his mug staring glassily out of Belvoir’s promotional imagery – is itself a symphony of cruelty that builds to a heart-stopping crescendo. Together, it’s horrifying.
Stefan Gregory’s soundtrack of sourced music – Handel, Schubert, Mary J Blige, Ice Cube, Roy Orbison – not only sets the tone beautifully but plays a crucial storytelling role in the production. Without revealing too much, the deployment of Queen’s ‘I’m in Love with My Car’ – Brian May’s triumphant guitars, Roger Taylor’s snarling vocals – is perfect. (And naturally the name of the album from which the track originates
is no mistake.)
In fact, one also has to resist the temptation to reveal too much about the workings of Claude Marcos’s set and the arrangement of the space. But it is extraordinary – and put to extraordinarily good use.
We critics are fond of saying when a theatre production lingers long in the mind afterwards. But there are also theatre productions that are lodged in the brain forever, probably on a shelf in your cerebral storage space not far from where memories of traumatic events are stored. Stone’s The Wild Duck – which earned him a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Production and Best Director this week – is one of these. Thyestes is undoubtedly another – it feels as if Atreus’s diabolical command to “re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber, re-mem-ber” is directed just as much to Thyestes as it is to the rapt audience. You won’t forget anything as intense and penetrating – and brilliant – as Thyestes in a hurry.