If at this moment in time you believe theatre within the British community is exciting, fresh, challenging and most importantly, life-changing, I’d beg to differ. With a few exceptions, such as Marianne Eliiott and Simon Stephens’ The Curios Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, British theatre has the tendency to reside on the safe side. One might say this because for the first time I have witnessed at the Holland Festival the work of Australia’s Belvoir – and genuinely sat unsettlingly in my seat from beginning to end. Travelling from a unique performance space in Sydney, Belvoir Street Theatre was threatened with redevelopment back in the 80s, but 600 avid theatre lovers formed a syndicate to keep the space safe. They have since paved the way to visionary productions, one of which has built particular anticipation of late – a male Hedda Gabler.
As in most Greek mythology, the story of Thyestes centres on the greed and the need for power. Thyestes and his brother Atreus, heirs to the throne, find that their father, King of Olympia, has promised the throne to that of their half-brother Chrysippus, and in disgust their mother orders her two sons to kill him. By doing so the brothers find themselves exiled, and after their father is finally laid to rest they gain the throne and decide to rule alternately. However, one brother in particular is consumed by desires and driven wild by jealousy.
Director Simon Stone has, with his cast, adapted Seneca’s classic, here succinctly explained scene by scene with subtitles. Divine choral music suggests a traditional classic, but as the curtains rise we are suddenly filtered into a witty modern script. It’s bliss. Three mates essentially sitting in a boozer having a pint, talking about girls, sex, music, everything day to day, social media incorporated, with utmost ease. Except that they are situated in a purely pristine white box of an arena with audience seated in both directions.
The most fascinating thing about this production is that half way through they flip the switch and what was in chronological order plunges into the future and works its way backwards. It is a brutal story and it is brutally shown. They show everything for what it is, and in traverse – nudity, rape and blood. The safety curtains are dropped regularly between scenes, but the most simple and engaging way of using this is during the scene which is the source of the modern phrase ‘Thyestean Feast’. Snippet after snippet of agony and horror is even more effective given the interruptions, feeding you bit-by-bit, and teasing with gore. They entice your imagination to dark places, as if in presence of Erebus – and he’s not even there.
Feeling uneasy is maybe a good thing. You go to the theatre to feel and they do a mighty job of making you emote. Many may look at this and say, “too far!” or ‘too much!”, but when it comes to the showing the actual story in its literal sense, this collective has been brave enough to tell it like it is – gruesome. We constantly worry about the susceptibility of our children, from the influences of television, internet or computer games. Yet these are the stories we direct them to when we encourage them to study those venerated Oxbridge classics. A feast for thought.