THYESTES - ADELAIDE FESTIVAL
THYESTES, The Hayloft Project and Adelaide Festival at the Space Theatre, 3-7 March 2018; Photography by Jeff Busby
It’s hard to remember any details of this adaptation from its first production in Sydney in 2010, except that it was dazzling bright white and delivered a series of shocks: aural, oral and visual. It’s possible it’s even more shocking now because times have changed, we are now much more conscious of the extremes of male behaviour and – significantly – Toby Schmitz has joined the cast.
This adaptation of Seneca’s adaptation of the Greek myths was devised, over a rehearsal/writing period of some weeks, by director Simon Stone and the original actors, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter. It quickly gained a reputation and a following based on Stone’s notoriety (bad boy director) and the work itself (uncompromising, relentless). There were lovers and haters – and it’s the same here at the 2018 Adelaide Festival.
On small screens set above and below the stage area, a scene number and synopsis of the impending action scrolls, the only illumination in the otherwise darkened auditorium. When “the curtain” rises it reveals the stage as a narrow, featureless bright white rectangular box, open to the audience which has been pre-divided in two, each group facing the other across the void where three contemporarily dressed men are already present.
Although the synopsis had suggested a scene from ancient Rome and Greece, they are talking about a trip to central America recently undertaken by Chrysippus (Chris Ryan). His half-brother Thyestes (Thomas Henning) listens patiently to a truly tedious tale while second half-brother and twin Atreus (Toby Schmitz) is engaged with his smartphone and energetically ignoring the conversation.
In his program notes Simon Stone writes, “We are our myths. These myths are real...” and even though the telling of this particular myth – the jealous twins who murder their younger brother – might seem a bit blood-curdling, particularly when an act of revenge becomes a delicious looking dinner, but check the day’s headlines and Stone is right...
ABC Newsmail, Afternoon Edition, 6 March: “Girl murdered because ‘she was making too much noise,’ court hears.” Or, “A mother handed over her 15yo girl to be raped – now police are hunting man who did it.” Or, “Life in jail after dead grandmother’s body dug up by family dog.” Or, most disconcerting of all, perhaps, “ ‘It wasn’t a date’: Xenophon laughs off Lambie KFC date.”
Like so many of the ancient and modern myths, the driving forces are ego, power and lust. And in this production each unfortunate human trait explodes out of the box, driven primarily by a dynamic Toby Schmitz. When he is handed a role to get his intellectual teeth into there’s no holding back and his Atreus is monumental. The energy and precision of his performance are riveting and in a number of roles, male and female, Chris Ryan is a moth to his flame. Thomas Henning is most often the still centre of the storm, almost the audience’s representative in hell.
Humiliation, jealousy and revenge abound and knowing this – seeing this – makes the audience’s frequent outbursts of laughter as shocking as the action on stage. Depravity splashes across the divide and, at an 11am performance with high school kids innocent in the front rows, watching them was as fascinating as the play itself. The boys trying to be impassive and the girls’ eyes becoming ever more saucer-like until all were open-mouthed as horror and comprehension dawned on each.
Each scene is prefaced, in darkness, by the scrolling message and one can be in no doubt there will be tears and more before bedtime. When the scene numbers begin appearing in reverse, even those familiar with this play will be disconcerted.
Thyestes is not for everyone – what is? – but its unyielding brutality and passion are also perversely humane and beautiful at times; also wickedly funny and repulsive by turn. Men behaving badly is nothing new and these ancient myths could have been ripped from today’s papers – in Adelaide especially where the only local daily is a Murdoch rag of dubious worth.
Perhaps the best thing about the performance – aside from the unflinching brilliance of the actors – was seeing the high school students’ eyes and minds turned inside out even as a mob of elderly biddies and lawn bowlers headed for the doors in states of shock and awe(fulness). Brilliant!