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Sunday, 19 February 2012

BELVOIR’S THYESTES dissected by me

I know you’ve all been anxiously waiting for this review and I can’t blame you. Did she love it? Did she hate it? How will she respond to 'Thyestes'? Will she rip it a new one or has she finally fallen under the spell of the German inspired aesthetic as interpreted by Stone and co?

The simple answer is…I still don’t know how I feel about 'Thyestes'.

Many readers come to this page to help them articulate their own thoughts of what they’ve seen- to offer a perspective about a show, to clarify in their own minds why they responded like they did to what they just saw. I get it. I really do. And I think that’s why 'Thyestes' has spent days rattling around in my brain because like most of you, it dances on the edge of the sword between powerful ideas and imagery and then grotesque violence, homo-eroticism and misogyny and then stabs you with it. It feels at times gratuitous and hedonistic and then at others extremely provocative and disturbing.

So I’ll do my best to give you something to work with to help you understand this play and its impact but I offer no guarantees and may even disappoint. However, I am saying up front, if you haven’t seen this show, you should, at least (or no more than) once. Otherwise, none of what I’m about to tell you will make much sense at all.

'Thyestes' is a Hayloft Project production that first premiered in Melbourne about 18 months ago and is now playing at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival for Belvoir. It is a re-interpretation by director Simon Stone and his cast Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter and based on Seneca’s play of the same title and the ancient Greek myth of the two brothers, Thyestes and Atreus, who manipulated their way to the throne of Mycenae and their betrayal of each other and the consequences of these actions. It is a cause and effect story and told and performed with surtitles, a box set (literally a box with audience on both sides- a traverse stage) and three male actors with Chris Ryan playing all the other roles, including female characters, whilst Henning and Winter play the brothers.

Let’s talk about the less contentious elements of the show first so I can procrastinate a bit longer about discussing the weight and power of the production.

The set and its configuration was a very clever device and made the experience not only filmic but intrigued audiences on both sides of the set on how quickly set changes in this white box occurred (false walls). The arrival of the grand piano was quite a triumph. The stark quality of the stage added to the dissection of humanity upon it. I loved the use of Stone’s vision on Claude Marcos’ set and sitting in the second row the proximity and perspective of the action drew me in completely. If I wanted to look at the audience opposite me, which sometimes I did, I was also fascinated by their response to the action. There was squirming, laughter, shock, disgust- the gamut on offer. The frame and mise-en-scene offered a cinema experience in three dimensions and being so close meant you were assaulted by the events and had to make a conscious effort where to focus and Stone exploited every moment he could.

Stefan Gregory's composition and sound design was also a strong element, although the use of discordant electric guitars may feel predictable in Stone’s work, here it finally found its home. Other choices, especially classical music juxtaposed with what felt like death metal and moments of Roy Orbison if you please, captured the mood of the piece and its journey. And Ryan's beautiful rendition of Schubert's 'Der Doppelganger' was perhaps the most moving part of the play.

OK..I know…I’m stalling. Let’s get to it then…

This play stays with you. You don’t want it to but it does. Honestly, I woke up in the middle of the night to those images and I couldn’t let them go. They had burrowed down into my psyche and demanded attention. And yet, I never want to see this play again. I came out saying “I don’t know what I feel about it. I don’t know what I think about it. It’s going to take some time to process that show.”

Stone employs the use of surtitles to convey plot points before the ‘curtains’ slide open and characters are presented in often the most mundane of activities or environments, a contrast to the heightened implications of high stakes events being played out as low stakes transactions. And I think that’s one of the reasons we are struggling to connect with the play. 'Thyestes' has great ideas that are disconnected to the conveyed narrative and perhaps in our traditional expectations in how they should be expressed. Even Stone states in the program, “…we were able to bring a naturalness to the language that was in stark contrast to the heightened nature of the myth”. And yet this is also why it is engaging in its choices- because it messes with our expectations.

The opening scene so perfectly captures the voice of young men, it is disturbing (and I teach teenage boys so I’ve got some sort of insight here- trust me). So straight away, Stone et al paint a picture of male aggression and obsession with self. And then the introduction of homo-eroticism and misogyny take it to another level. It is alienating and makes us fearful of male behaviour, this self-love of violence, presented by what we have already established as natural male characters, real to the culture in which we live and social conditioning. And the most violent of them all, Atreus, played by Winter, possesses such charm and seductiveness, how do we reconcile that we want him and are repulsed by him at the same time? I don’t know. I do know that men and women I’ve spoken to who have seen this play have responded very differently to it and I am not surprised. 'Thyestes' challenges how we tell stories and it achieves what it sets out to do. Provoke.

Cut to the end of the play- now told non-linear (as opposed to the first half) so it can manipulate its way to the most terrifying of endings, shown in a montage of shots (filmic) of our worst nightmares. Where the first half of the play took its time travelling through the world of the characters, the second half thunders through its events so the audience have no time to breathe. You can’t help but having a strong reaction although you struggle to care about the characters. It feels like a one-eyed interpretation but it’s clear and powerful. It lacks human connection but disturbs our notion of humanity.

The fact that the cast and director have spent a long time with this show is obvious. There is an intimacy between them that allows them to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. The cast invest in this show and I hope there is a bevy of alcohol waiting for them afterwards. I am moved by the performances, even if I’m not moved by the characters. The integrity of the actors is without question.

'Thyestes' is a play with interesting ideas, great sensory choices and performances, thoughtful direction and technical elements. However, is there a lesson in it? Does it offer us an alternative? Hope? I don’t know.

You may love 'Thyestes'. You may hate it. But I think the real question you need to ask yourself is why you feel that way.

And with that, I’ll leave it with you…


  1. Wow, Jane. You have painted such an intruiging picture of what this play may offer. As a person who hasn't it - I find myself really wanting to see it...and then not. You pay it its rewards and speak honestly about the grey areas.
    Thanks for the great read. :)

  2. A very different production to any I've seen before. The juxtaposition, as you point out, of the overall plot and the conversations in the actual scenes. I found it very interesting that very little of the plot plays out on stage. But that sometimes left the scenes with a lack of suspense / engagement (for me).

    Not having seen the original, I'm not sure if scenes 7-12 play out in that order or if that was a modern interpretation (or if it's actually just epilogue turned into scenes). I liked it, though. It made the climax less about revenge, because we had already seen that. And we had already seen the consequences of that climax -- one brother becomes more crazy, while the other mellows.

    The acting was incredible.

    The play should probably be called Atreus, though, shouldn't it? Although I don't think they actually used a name on stage the whole show. More a process of deduction as to who was who. And was anyone else initially confused about who Chris Ryan was supposed to be in the 3rd scene? No costume change, combined with no names, made it a little bit ambiguous at first.