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Belvoir and Sydney Festival 2012, in association with Carriageworks, present THYESTES by Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Simon Stone & Mark Winter after Seneca in Bay 20 at Carriageworks. Originally created by The Hayloft Project.
This production of THYESTES playing at Carriageworks is the most perfect piece of dramatic work that I have seen for some time. To be a regular and interested theatre goer and not have seen it will be a great loss to your Sydney theatre experience. Make no excuses. And even if you are an occasional theatre goer or one who through other strictures (lack of lots of funds, being one) have to choose carefully what you decide to see, ensure you see this work. 
The play-wrighting is astounding. The acting is magnificent. The design elements are all of a whole and faultless.The stage management is breathtaking. The direction, taut, intelligent and complete. Theatrical Intelligence and sheer bloody bravura permeates every element of this production. Do not miss it.
My reaction sounds almost Senecan in its hyperbole! Then trick me, stab me, cut me up and serve me to your friends in a blood red sauce if  what I say is not so.
THYESTES created by The Hayloft Project first appeared in September 2010 at the Tower Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne. In the Co-Writer and Director’s notes in the program, Simon Stone tells us of the intense process that he, Chris Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter took to find  “a framework  for our new version of the Ancient Greek myth of Thyestes and his brother Atreus…” sprung from a reading of Seneca’s Roman play of the myth. They studied their original sources and examined examples of other “various tyrants, dictators, serial killers and psychopaths… We became fascinated by the psychology, of both perpetrator and victim, underlying the horrific acts in the myth.We weren’t content to accept the characters or the events in the story as fabulous inventions of the past. We wanted to explore the aspects of Greek mythology that drove Freud to use these stories as clues to our own more modern but no less brutal instincts. …”
This is what they have done. “Eventually we were ready to write and we divided the scenes between each actor, wrote a draft, then handed it on for redrafting by one of the others. We rehearsed the scenes as we wrote them, improvised on their basic structure, documented this new text, rewrote the scenes, re-rehearsed them, improvised again, rewrote and so on into previews and throughout the season. Often we would discard a whole scene, begin from a new improvisation, approach from a different angle or replace dialogue with action or music until we felt that the whole production was rhythmically and tonally in tune with the source material.” 16 months later the performances that Sydney are seeing is a production that has found its balances and needs not, to my eye, in need of any further improvisation or changes. Reading the text, after my viewing, it was much as published. The thoroughness of the process and time served, has stewed this work into a perfect dish.
Seneca’s plays are famously influential in the development of the English theatre traditions, particularly in the Late Elizabethan and all of the Jacobean period (‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE, a late example). Seneca’s plays are suspected not to have been written to be performed – there is no record of performances – rather to be read or recited. Written by Seneca living close to the Roman Emperor Caligula, and becoming teacher/poet/philosopher and adviser to Nero, there was plenty “bad behaviour’ for him to have seen and recorded.
The Thyestes/Atreus story is truly terrifying in the translation that I have read. Seneca is famous for his detail of description and it is heaped with language of great and terrible imagery: the play’s “language, flamboyant with rhetorical ornament, (remain) as a compost-heap to enrich the soil of the English dramatic verse for a couple of generations”!! The language found by Hayloft  for the contemporary rendering of the Ancient Greek characters is vitally and muscularly apt. And this language is not only verbal, but stunningly physical. 
We sit in front of a raised black curtained box frame the width of the stage. The scene (and each following) is announced in red text, illuminating for us the action of the scene we are about to witness. It is the formal breakdown of the Senecan context .With an accompaniment of either classical or heavy metal rock music a curtain rises on a white box, the back wall of which is another section of the audience, who sit opposite us- mirror like. The performance is played in a traverse mode. There are no doors, no windows, no exits from this white space, floor and roof, it, having fluorescents of variable intensity. Across the space are three contemporary, variously dressed hip men, standing, seated on the floor, sipping wine, with an iPhone connected to the sound system having a wastrel conversation of no great consequence but studded with pop references that distinguish the cultural milieu of their lives with comic accuracy. 
We have read the context of the Seneca scene and we are given the puzzle to ‘fit’ that to what is happening in front of us. If you have paid attention and are paying attention it is a very macabre, amusing adventure to do so, whose tensions multiply to a final moment of shocking surprise and brutality. The music returns, the curtain drops, a new scene is announced and the curtain rises again. A new cryptic puzzle has been set. This, is the modus operandi of the production.
What is intriguing is that in the drop of curtain there are costume changes and, some times, elaborate furniture arrangements revealed. That there are no doors, and seemingly next to no wing space and no fly tower, how does it happen? A baby grand piano appears on stage and disappears! Last time I was tricked like that was at a Sigfried and Roy Show in Las Vegas – a happy conceit. Add to the intrigue and understand, there are only three actors, all male. One, Thyestes (Thomas Henning); Two, Atreus (Mark Winter) and Three, Chris Ryan who plays all others, of both genders. Remembering this and solving this in the heat of the scene action is part of the cryptic and cultural shocks. This is inclusive, interactive theatre on many, many levels.
Performed without an interval the scenes are at first in chronological order, and just when you think you have got the hang of it and kind of take a rest, the scenes go to the end of the play and play in reverse. No rest for the keen and no fun for the lazy.There is an intellectual exhilaration about been part of the puzzle and an experience of roller coaster emotional dimension, as the horrors and comic grand guignol toll mounts.
The bounce from the 1st Century version of the Greek mythical figures in the red text scene announcements at the start of every scene to the contemporary reality of the stage action, of such people existing in the world around us today, is underlined passionately for us by these actors, and the growing knowledge that evolution is slow and that humanity is basically stupid and some times in the control of the psychopaths is brought home with full force. Where Cheek by Jowl fails with ‘TiS PITY SHE’S A WHORE, The Hayloft Project THYESTES, succeeds.
Certainly the contemporary violence and the depravity of these men we have seen culturally re-enforced seemingly endlessly in film, terrifyingly on almost every news bulletin, and I have to admit in circumstances I sometimes find myself in, by simply catching public transport or drinking in a pub. The world of Senca is here, made potently relevant and all to terribly, flesh and blood.
Mark Winter gives a tour de force performance of shattering psychopathic mania. In the past year I have seen three actors give there all to their work for us in roles that make Olympian demands of them – they and he did not baulk: Anthony Gooley in THE LIBERTINE and recently, Josh McConville in THE BOYS. This is simply great acting of commitment and well-judged craft. The physical, mental and emotional toll of scene six in which he deals with  the captured Aerope is startling in its thorough evil mania – the staging daring and shocking. He still had six scenes to complete. His exhausted curtain call says a great deal. Thomas Henning is no less impressive in the victim role: rhythm differences, soft, sly feints of behaviour in counterpoint to the erratic brother twin of Mr Winter are underplayed with wisdom and sensibility. While Chris Ryan demonstrates a versatility and sound judgement of his craft to make Art of some impression. His performance in cross gender roles is distinguished and cleverly observed and crafted, crowned with a beautiful masterly musical rendition, at the piano, of Schubert’s ‘Der Doppelganger”- awesome, indeed.
The Set and Costume design, Claude Marcos, impeccable. Every choice exactly right. A great visual collaborator. Lighting design, by Govin Ruben is fabulous and amazing considering his options in this tight space and traverse arrangement. Stefan Gregory as the Composer and Sound designer reveals the artistry that binds the vision of the production as a completed statement. It is wonderfully thought out and executed. Congratulations to the stage management for the miraculous (and soundless) scene changes. They help create a great part of the surprise and visual tension of the production and it is flawlessly done (Eva Tandy, Rebecca Poulter and Neil Fisher).
Lastly, Simon Stone as the director of this collaboration has created a masterpiece that reflects his intentions as a theatre maker, as clearly as I thought  POPPEA, the Monteverdi Opera that Barrie Kosky presented with his Vienna Schauspielhaus in August, 2009 at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney opera House, did. The intelligence in his approach to the literature of the text is great and when that is supported by a theatrical intelligence that can produce the final sequences of the production with the terrifying rise and drop of the curtain, revealing image after image of mounting narrative power with overwhelming musical rapport one is left dumbfounded with admiration. 
What is important to note is the deep preparation and process he encouraged and shared. It is a model. The work shows the 16 month gestation. For this is a great new Australian play script, astoundingly present  and of its time. There is more here than the beauty of this production, an extant play, for others to consider. The production, unfortunately, is ephemeral, and will soon disappear into the mists and myths of history.
Make sure it is part of your theatre history.
Now, for the record,  this was a Festival event. Deeply prepared. Well rehearsed, and of fearless theatrical risk. Worth every cent.

6 replies to “Thyestes”

  1. What a fantastic review. Not so much for being praiseworthy, but for your ability to articulate what is so good about this production.

    It was too sophisticated for me, or rather I have such a problem with short-term memory (esp. absorbing data at such a pace), I was rarely able to link the words to the scenes. I couldn't remember what the words were even though I read the Seneca version before attending.

    It never occurred to me that some of the scenes were being played out backwards as in A History if Everything.

    Yes the acting was superb, and how they got through those set changes is an utter mystery to me ???

    Thanks for helping me out coz the show 'felt' really good (I have every good 'emotional memory"). And well done for honouring these creatives with a response worthy of their work.

  2. Your note on development fails to note that this is a revival – which means, at least a large chunk of the development was done in front of an audience at the original Malthouse production. Time and time again we hear complaints that new scripts are insufficiently developed, while failing to notice that the original production IS a part of the development process (the best way to see if something plays in front of an audience is to stick it in front of a proper audience – i.e. general public who have paid their dollars, not invited friends or panels of "developers")

    The expectation of fully-developed work at every single premiere is brutally unfair to new work and causes more new work to be written off as a failure than it should.

  3. At the end of this production I felt no more informed about the psychopathology of evil than I was at the beginning. Certainly the performances were uniformly strong and the staging arresting, but what did it all add up to? What sort of understanding are we left with? Is it some sort of take on what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil"? I wanted to walk away with some take on the psychological mechanism of the events – of the type that you point to in your review of "The Boys". You say in your review "… the contemporary violence and the depravity of these men we have seen culturally re-enforced seemingly endlessly in film, terrifyingly on almost every news bulletin…" Well…yes. So what does this production give us that's not that? All I managed to glean from what looked to me like a series of loosely connected but well acted impros was the terrible events were the product of pathological narcissism. Peter

  4. Saw this last night. I can understand your rave.
    Yes, a lot of talent, hard work, deep preparation, clever scene switches and so on but too clever by far for me. I guess that must make me an unkeen, lazy member of the audience – not one of the intellectual elite so to speak. I did try but in the end gave up. Sadly I have no head for cryptic crosswords. The ensuing irritation of my intellectual failure prevented me from experiencing the passion, the horror and the drama. I started shifting in my seat (they are very uncomfortable seats at the CarriageWorks but if one is fully engaged it is not a hindrance)and, especially when the scene sequence started playing in reverse, found time lagging.
    I am familiar with the original play, the characters and the story so I did not come in cold. I do go to the theatre a lot, I read massively and love Barrie Kosky's work particulary Poppea, Women of Troy and The Lost Echo (saw all of it in one sitting)but sadly this for me was a hip smarty-pants affair aimed at a particular audience that I was not part of.

  5. If you can afford it I would encourage it. If I could afford it I would. Some friends have seen it in Sydney twice, even, thrice, and did not comment on any significant improvisationary moments from one experience to the other. I am not sure how much of THYESTES is being imprrovised now. Maybe, still, but I suspect, estimate minutely.

    From reading the published text after attending the performance I saw, there did not seem to be any major differences – if any. In Melbourne, the process of creation, which I quote from the program notes, were very 'volatile' with planned structural alterations as well as Improvbisational changes night to night. I don't know if that was going on much in the Sydney performances.

    The live improvisations would give an added edge of danger to the performance and increase the "circus'element of failing.

    Good actors are always 'improvising' in the moment with each other and, perforce, with the personality of each new audience , who are a brand new character every night, the give and take of the 'energy exchange and emphasis will be different. It is part of the craft and attractiveness in performing live.

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