Saturday, 6 June 2009

Thyestes - Arcola Theatre

Thyestes by Seneca
Translated by Caryl Churchill
Director Polly Findlay
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

Darbourne Luff’s ‘Thyestes’ is engaging, innovatively staged, and superbly acted – and all this in a tight, 75 minute nutshell!

The space itself is impressive: the post-apocalyptic warehouse space with its hanging lights and derelict furniture mirrors the darkness that is about to unfold. A lone, sinister figure sits motionless on stage while the audience is seated, then slowly rises and the play begins. Tantalus, sent to hell for killing his son and serving him as dinner for the gods, is dragged back from the underworld, blind and disoriented, to reawaken his family’s curse.

Showing impressive physical prowess, Youssef Kerkpur’s Fury introduced Tantalus’ by dragging his ghost from a large vat of water on stage, lifting a drenched Jamie Ballard out and over his head before throwing him on the floor. A picture of fear, Ballard’s blind eyes were staring wildly as he scrabbled around on the wet floor, beautifully setting the scene for the horror that was to come.

The only real problem with this play was the amount of reportage used to describe occurrences that happened offstage – a common issue with Greek Theatre as events are too fantastic to actually be presented. The scenes where the characters interacted, particularly those between Ballard as Thyestes and Nick Fletcher as Atreus, were so engaging and powerful that when you got long passages of description it felt the energy dropped, especially when events were then recapped in the following scenes.

What did impress me, however, was how these troublesome passages were presented. In the longest one, between the Messenger (Prasanna Puwanarajah) and Chorus (Michael Grady-Hall) the lights went out as Puwanarajah described Atreus murder and mutilation of Thyestes’ sons, and the rest of the scene was lit only by torches. The impressive creative team then showed their true worth, as the stage became a horror film: flickering lights, blood trails and footprints appearing as if from nowhere, and filing cabinets illuminating to show silhouetted children covered in blood. This was superb to watch, however it served to make the text mostly redundant, as it was so much more interesting that what was being said. Also, Puwanarajah’s delivery was very matter-of-fact: clearly spoken, but with little feeling behind it. Grady-Hall’s Chorus was similarly underpowered, and failed to engage and built the required rapport with the audience.

Fletcher’s performance as Atreus was beautifully drawn and consistent throughout the piece – a vengeful brother in the guise of a politician: a slick, smooth sociopath. The final scene, when he gives Thyestes the heads and hands of his children and completes his revenge, was outstanding. Ballard, strong as ever, presented a destroyed man: Thyestes wailing and wretching on the floor, trying to find a way to process his horror. Atreus, watching coldly, remarks that his pain “is not enough” for him, delighting in his terrible triumph.

A new production company, Darbourne Luff have made a strong start with this engaging piece, and I can only hope more of the same is to follow.

Photos: Iona Firouzabadi
Thyestes runs at the Arcola until Sat 27th June
frontpage hit counter