Sydney Festival: Thyestes
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Sydney Festival: Thyestes

‘Thyestes’ at Carriageworks is a confronting production. [Image: Jeff Busby]

Dr Robert Cowan, a lecturer in the University of Sydney’s Department of Classics and Ancient History, responds to the Sydney Festival production of Thyestes.

Seneca should shock. Anyone who thinks that Latin literature is all about Classical harmony and decorum will be brought up short by the many grotesque and darkly comic moments in his tragedies: Thyestes’ notorious belch after unwittingly eating his children not the least of them.

“Confronting”, as one of my students called it, certainly describes the Hayloft/Belvoir version of Thyestes at Carriageworks. The elderly gentleman who walked out after about 10 minutes at the first yell of “f**k” spared himself a good deal of nudity and sex, including a fellated strap-on and a rapist’s penis dripping with hymeneal blood. Seneca would have been proud.

Yet this Thyestes is almost entirely about what we don’t see. Instead of witnessing rape, murder and cannibal-cooking onstage, we see the mundane chit chat and banal banter that goes on between the atrocities before the curtain falls, cutting in a cinematic way as the pistol is aimed, or the adulterous lips move towards each other.

Of course, the long shadow of Pulp Fiction lies over some of this technique, but where the disquisitions on cheeseburgers by Tarantino’s hit men suffused their brutal violence with a sense (however disturbing) of light-hearted comedy, Thyestes’ ping-pong games, anecdotes about Twitter and gags about Indian call-centres throw into sharp and painful relief the violence we know will follow.

Much of this has Classical precedent. In Greek and Roman tragedy, all violence took place offstage. But while Seneca stimulates the audience’s visual imagination of the full horror of that violence by having a messenger describe it in gruesome and often salacious detail, Simon Stone and his co-creators leave us to blackout, Brechtian surtitles, baleful music and our own nightmarish visions.

In the contemporary setting of the staged action, iPods, TVs and mobiles litter the stage. The surtitles’ distance the narrative of mythical kings and queens of Pisa and Mycenae. Again, the parallels with ancient tragedy are striking: Euripides’ characters may walk the streets of mythical Troy or Thebes, but they talk the political and social language of his own fifth-century Athens; Seneca’s tragic tyrants have luxury palaces and fishponds straight from the court of Caligula or Nero. Tragedy then and now is about all time, focused through our time.

The apparent mundanity of the dialogue is key. Seneca’s characters often spout the paradoxical, epigrammatic one-liners of the Roman declamation schools, like the demented three-year-old lovechild of Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker. But behind the clichés, or rather through the clichés, their minds are revealed, the grasping, ravenous, monstrous hearts of darkness within.

So the apparent irrelevance of the conversations is slowly revealed to be terrifyingly central to the characters’ psyches. Atreus’s obsession with sex, with violence and with control is manifested as much in his anecdote about the strap-on of his opera-singer girlfriend, or his table-tennis mind-games as when the strap-on terrifyingly reappears in his torture of his unfaithful wife, or when he manipulates his hapless brother into cannibalism.

Though all three performances are excellent — and mention must be made of Chris Ryan’s versatility in four roles, two of them female, like a Classical tritagonist — Mark Winter’s Atreus is superlative. The balance, or rather the blend, of charisma and psychosis, the megalomania tinged with touching moments of vulnerability (the pain of Chrysippus’ friendly words before he is murdered, the astonishing scene in which the abandoned Atreus repeatedly replays his wife’s voicemail message and enters in to conversation with it) match and at times surpass anything in Seneca. The banality of evil is in some sense certainly there, but Atreus is no Eichmann, no colourless, bureaucratic mass-murderer; the most confronting thing about this Thyestes, as with Seneca’s, is the way that we are drawn into a disturbing attraction to this monster.