Their flesh is heaving
Thyestes, Seneca, translated by Caryl Churchill.
An idea - the antagonism of the two concepts Dionysian and Apollonian - is translated into metaphysics; history itself is depicted as the development of this idea; in tragedy this antithesis has become unity; from this standpoint things which heretofore had never been face to face are suddenly confronted, and understand and are illuminated by each other.... "Rationality" at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life.... Christianity is neither Apollonian nor Dionysian; it negates all aesthetic values; it is nihilistic in the most profound sense, while in the Dionysian symbol the ultimate limit of affirmation is attained...
Friedrich Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo on The Birth of Tragedy
Since 2007, The Hayloft Project has established itself as one of Australia’s leading independent companies with a string of elegant, razor-intelligent productions. In particular, they've attracted attention for their reworking of modern classics, such as Wedekind's Spring Awakening, Chekhov’s Platonov and, controversially, a fascinating version of Three Sisters, 3XSisters. For Thyestes, Malthouse's Tower Theatre residency for 2010, director Simon Stone reaches much further into the past, to the plays of Nero's tutor and adviser, philosopher and sometime dramatist, Seneca the Younger.
He's linked forces again with Black Lung stalwarts Mark Leonard Winter and Thomas Henning. Others include Chris Ryan (seen most recently in Malthouse’s Elizabeth and Benedict Andrews’s Measure for Measure at Belvoir St), Hayloft dramaturge Anne-Louise Sarks, one of the brains behind Hayloft's Fringe hit Yuri Wells, and sound designer Stefan Gregory, who was responsible for the astonishing sound in the STC’s The War of the Roses. The result is Hayloft’s best work yet, and one of the highlights of the year. Thyestes is rock'n'roll theatre: confronting, transgressive, uncomfortably hilarious, obscene, horrifying, and desolatingly beautiful.
Yet it's hard to know where to begin talking about this show. Thinking about it is very like contemplating one of those breeding tangles of snakes that David Attenborough's Life featured a couple of weeks ago on the ABC: it's an orgy of forms and ideas, each writhing about the others, which makes the mind slide distractingly from one thought to the next. I think that above all, you're dazzled by the sheer outrageous excess of it, its shockingly wasteful expense of energy. And yet this impression of excess is created by what is surely one of Hayloft's most austere productions.
The austerity begins with the design, which is stark black and white, reflecting the absolute moral world of classical tragedy. The Greeks didn't do shadows: this is a universe of darkness visible, where the hidden is dragged into the unforgiving light. Claude Marcos's traverse set - effectively a black, narrow, enclosed box, with a white interior exposed by Govin Ruben's harsh fluorescent lights - embodies this sense of continuous revelation. When the blinds that serve as curtains are down, as they are between every scene, it's impossible to see the audience on the other side: each new scene reveals the audience as well as the actors. This becomes increasingly disconcerting, because one of the paradoxical effects of this show is to erase distances: between then and now, them and us, the actors and ourselves.
A major reason for this sense of collapse between boundaries is Stefan Gregory's sensually enveloping sound design. Gregory shamelessly exploits the capacity of music to locate us ecstatically in the present: the soundtrack includes Schubert and Handel, Wu Tang Clan and Ice Cube, Roy Orbison and Queen. This connects with another convention - the use of surtitles - to make Thyestes seem like a kind of opera. It looks like theatre, sounds like theatre, but in its strangely abstracted narrative, and especially in its emotional excess, it works more like an operatic history.
And what of the story itself? Simon Stone and his collaborators claim their version of Thyestes is "after Seneca", but it's probably more true to label it "before Seneca". Seneca's actual play - notoriously "modern" in that very little happens aside from the climactic event - is enacted in a mere couple of scenes, right at the end of the show. The rest is an excavation of the bloody history of the House of Tantalus: the first and worst of all unhappy families.
From Tantalus himself, who stole ambrosia from Olympus and who most notably slaughtered and cooked his son Pelops to feed the gods, to Menelaus and Agamemnon, who besieged Troy for 10 years to recover the faithless Helen, this single family constitutes the DNA of what we think of as canonical western literature. The doings of Tantalus's descendents exercised, among countless others, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and, later, Seneca. And through his influence on Jacobean and Elizabethan tragedy, and especially on Shakespeare, Seneca is arguably the biggest classical influence on English drama. What Hayloft presents isn't recognisably Shakespearean. It's not particularly Senecan, come to that. And yet its effect is surprisingly close to both: which I think is a result of a complexity of texture on the one hand, and a primitive, unforgiving harshness on the other.
Its narrative genius is the surtitles, which flash up before each scene, describing the plot of the story, before the curtains rise on the stage, revealing another, altogether more mundane reality. It's a brilliant way of coping with the tale's anachronisms, which are mostly removed from the actual performances, and become instead a framing device. And this convention means that the dozen or so short plays or tableaux that make up the whole need not concern themselves at all with plot. When the curtains rise, we are suddenly pitched into 21st century Melbourne, into the unremarked spaces between larger, tragic events. What we see are overwhelmingly domestic scenes.
The story begins with the murder by Thyestes (Thomas Henning) and Atreus (Mark Leonard Winter) of their half-brother, Chrysippus (Chris Ryan), at the urging of their mother Hippodamia, who is angry that her sons have been passed over to inherit the throne. The first scene is brilliant in how it winds you into its double reality: the three actors perform with an almost documentary realism that at first almost makes you believe you're overhearing three young men passing time, late at night, at a party. Until, that is, Chrysippus turns his back, fiddling with his iPod to get a favourite song, and the two brothers stand up, suddenly full of menace, and pull out the gun, and the machinery of tragedy is activated. Oddly, not so much on stage, as in our minds.
It's clear from the beginning that this version of Thyestes is primarily about the relationship between two brothers. The show has a genuinely Freudian edge, and not just in its unafraid confrontations of sexuality. Its increasing sense of disturbance is in how it echoes those dark jealousies that only exist between siblings, and that can continue lifelong, coloured into adulthood by the uncontrolled passions of infancy. Chrysippus's murder is at first presented as the originatory crime from which emerges the others, but as this bloody family history unrolls before us, it becomes clear that even this is an echo of earlier crimes, that these brothers are trapped in a hell of repetition that is the curse of their family.
This understanding has both a symbolic and a literal value: we understand the story in wholly contemporary terms, in how incest, for instance, can be passed down from generation to generation, the parent visiting on the child his or her own suffering; and we also understand it as myth, as a representation of something larger than it is. This dislocatedness is why it is, at times, very funny indeed. Some of its most powerful moments are when these double recognitions, which weave a complementary dance through the show, suddenly unite into a single breathtaking image.
The most memorable perhaps is when the curtain rises on the suicidal Pelopia (Chris Ryan), singing a Schubert lieder: mother of a child who is the product of incestuous rape, she is the image of unhealable damage, lifted suddenly into an ecstatically operatic moment, pain and beauty united. In such moments - there are others - the performers embody Nietzsche's idea of the tragic: a Dionysian image of absolute negation becomes, through the ecstasy of performance, "the absolute limit of affirmation". It's a quality that Barrie Kosky also achieves, although in very different ways: and the secret is in the balance between restraint and excess.
Winter, Henning and Ryan are astounding, on the one hand achieving a naturalistic authenticity that locates these extreme events in the middle of the mundane present, without on the other losing a sense of heightened reality. We believe in these ancient tales of warring kings, because we also understand, through these performances, that betrayal, violence, sexual excess, greed, despair and madness are, in fact, the most ordinary of human realities. Scratch the history of any family, and you will find such behaviours lurking not far beneath the surface. I'm not the first, for example, to link Thyestes's eating of his children with incest: in Hayloft's rendering of the story, this connection is even clearer, as it becomes a mirror of Thyestes's rape of his daughter Pelopia.
There's much more to tease out, but I've probably said enough. If you can possibly get there, don't miss it. The word is out, and it is wildly good: and the critics are in unusually rhapsodic alignment. The season has been extended an extra week, so there is still a chance to see it. But I suspect you'll have to be quick.
A short version of this review was in Monday's Australian.
Pictures, R-L: top, Mark Leonard Winter and Chris Ryan; bottom, Mark Leonard Winter, Thomas Henning and Chris Ryan. Photos: Jeff Busby
Thyestes, co-written and directed by Simon Stone, after Seneca. Co-written and performed by Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Leonard Winter. Set and costumes by Claude Marcos, lighting by Govin Ruben, sound design by Stefan Gregory. The Hayloft Project and Malthouse Theatre, Tower Theatre. Melbourne Fringe Festival. Until October 9.