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It’s the most gruelling chapter of the bloodiest of all ancient Greek myths: the story of the deposed king whose sons were slaughtered and served to him in a feast – courtesy of his own brother.
Having caused a sensation at last year’s festival with his staging of The Wild Duck, director Simon Stone returns with this play based on the various sagas surrounding Thyestes and Seneca’s tragedy of the same title. In a radical re-imagining of the original, Stone and his three actors have set the mythological horrors in a contemporary story. Love, sex and destruction are the driving impulses and grotesque and perverted violence seem to be the most mundane thing in the world.
The Australian director Simon Stone based his play Thyestes on the classic tragedy by the Roman writer Seneca the Younger (roughly 4 BC – 65 AD). Going back to the essence of the original material, Stone has stripped Seneca's Thyestes to its bare bones and then rebuilt it with completely new dialogues, invented during a long rehearsal process with his actors. A similar approach with his reworking of Ibsen's The Wild Duck caused a sensation at last year's festival - we hope the same will happen this year with Thyestes. It is, by the way, fortunate that Stone's actors will not be playing Seneca's piece as he would have intended, as we would have been forced to witness a rather static and boring performance with a minimum of dialogue and characterisation; instead of the confrontational piece of rock 'n' roll theatre full of violence, uncomfortable hilarity, obscenities, humour and beauty that we will experience now.
Seneca's text is the only play which he has not directly based on texts by his Greek predecessors such as Sophocles and Aeschylus. Thyestes is based on the various raw materials of the myth of the House of Atreus, which Seneca developed into a story of his own.
The myth is a bloody tale, steeped in violence, incest, rape, murder (infanticide, fratricide, parenticide) and unbearable torment. It's a history which starts off with Tantalus who served up his own son as a meal for to the Gods and is punished for this crime. Not only is he to suffer the eternal torment of not being able to drink or eat, his offspring are cursed as well. They all suffer unthinkable atrocities, from Pelops and Niobe to Atreus, Agamemnon, Paris, Helena, Menelaos. Electra, Iphigeneia and finally Orestes, who manages to lift the curse. But the tale of Thyestes tops them all, the high point being the moment his brother Atreus, who has led him to believe he wants to make peace with him, enters the hall with the cut off heads of Thyestes' two sons on a plate. It's the moment that Thyestes suddenly realises he has been betrayed by his brother and has just unwittingly been eating the flesh of his own sons.
Stone extends the reach of Seneca's story to previous and later plot points in this horrific family history, starting with Atreus and Thyestes murdering their bastard half-brother Chrysippos and ending (chronologically) with Thyestes' son Aigisthos taking his revenge. Stone has cut up the piece into twelve scenes which are divided by curtains rising and falling, cutting the action like film edits. Every scene is preceded by a short summary of the action and the plot of the scene as described by Seneca, which is projected in writing on the curtains. When the curtains are raised the audience is confronted with a stark, sometimes in hard white, at other times sickly yellow lit stage which is opened at both ends, so that the audience can see other members of the audience opposite them. From halfway through the story, the scenes are no longer chronologically sequenced, but work via cause and effect towards the unbearably cruel climax.
While the projected subtitles recount the murderous plot, the action on stage seems to 'dance around' the main events. We witness three actors in casual clothes drinking some wine and having a chat or playing a game of ping pong – two of the actors play Atreus and Thyestes respectively, the other takes all the other roles, including the female ones. Yet, underneath the often funny dialogue, we can sense the despair, dismay and disgust, as we know what has just happened or what is about to happen; or, as a variation, we only see the aftermath of a rape, or hear one of Schubert's Lieder as a prefiguration of a suicide. The mundane setting and natural dialogue serve to make the horror and the violence very real and palpable. Instead of watching an enigmatic myth from way back in history, the audience will identify with the characters, not so much with their crimes. Violence, revenge and murder become horrors which are extreme yet everyday – as Nick Spunde commented in Australian Stage: 'Even the Ancient Greeks would be stunned'.
Simon Stone (1984) is an Australian actor and theatre director. He is one of the greatest young talents of the Australian theatre. Stone was born in Basel. From there he moved with his parents and his two sisters to Cambridge in the UK and finally to Australia. There he studied at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne. In 2007 he founded the independent theatre company The Hayloft Project, where he adapted and directed Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen, Chekov’s Platonov and 3xSisters, The Suicide by Erdman and The Only Child, a new version of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. In 2010 he wrote and directed a version of Seneca’s Thyestes for the Hayloft Project and the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, This production won Green Room Awards for Best Adaptation, Best Production and Best Ensemble. In 2011 Stone became the Resident Director at Belvoir. In his first year he wrote and directed a new version of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, which won the Helpmann Award for Best Play and Best Director and Best Mainstage Production at the Sydney Theatre Awards. In 2013 Stone managed to impress again with a new version of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, with the Melbourne Theatre Company. After his success with The Wild Duck in Amsterdam and Vienna, Stone received numerous invitations to create new work in Europe. In early January 2014 his staging of Aeschylos' Oresteiai premiered in Oberhausen and in October Stone is directing Medea for Toneelgroep Amsterdam.
Belvoir is an Australian theatre company based at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Australia. In 1984 the old Nimrod Theatre was saved from demolition by more than six hundred Australian arts, entertainment and media professionals, including Nicole Kidman, Judy Davis, Gillian Armstrong, Sam Neil and Dame Joan Sutherland. The theatre was renamed the Belvoir St Theatre. The theatre company Belvoir was formed that same year and has since built a reputation as an innovative and important company engaging Australia’s most prominent and promising playwrights, directors and actors. Among the actors who worked with the company are famous names such as Geoffrey Rush, Cate Blanchett and Jacqueline McKenzie.
- Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Simon Stone, Mark Winter after Seneca
- co-written by
- Simon Stone
- set and costume design
- Claude Marcos
- composer and sound design
- Stefan Gregory
- lighting design
- Govin Ruben
- Anne-Louise Sarks
- stage manager
- assistant stage manager
- Rebecca Poulter
- Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz
- originally created by
- The Hayloft Project
- commissioned by
- Malthouse Theatre
- Australia Council for the Arts, Andrew Cameron Family Foundation, The Keir Foundation, Mark Carnegie and Jessica Block
- with thanks to
‘Thyestes is rock’n’roll theatre: confronting, transgressive, uncomfortably hilarious, obscene, horrifying and beautiful.’The Herald Sun