Printable CopyTHYESTES
The Adelaide Festival
The Space
Until 07 Mar 2018

Review by Jamie Wright

In a small room with stark white walls, three men talk. About travel. About relationships. About the possible benefits of receiving fellatio from an opera singer. But the references are contemporary, the dress is modern and all have smartphones.

It’s abundantly clear, then, that director Simon Stone’s “Thyestes”, written by him and the three performers in the original 2010 Malthouse Theatre production (Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter; Henning and Ryan appear here but Toby Schmitz has replaced Winter) is not going to be anything resembling a traditional staging of the story of the tragic rivalry between two brothers in Ancient Greece. But that’s kind of the point – that human nature is human nature: bordering on the banal at times; steeped in brutality (physical and emotional) at others.

The story is told via the combination of narration – provided by text on electronic surtitles – followed by the performance of the scene described. This juxtaposition of classical and contemporary stories seems strange at the beginning but feels entirely acceptable by the end.

It’s a mix of scenes with casual, seemingly throwaway dialogue (though some of the pop culture references reveal that the text from the 2010 version has been amended and the integration doesn’t feel as smooth as it could) and those completely devoid of words entirely. There’s one scene you’ll only fully appreciate if you understand German. The audience laughs freely and often at the beginning, but this ebbs away, replaced by shocked silence (broken only by the occasional gasp or groan) as the story unfolds. The first block of scenes are chronological while the second starts from the final scene and works backwards.

The staging – the aforementioned small room is on a raised platform above the floor of the Space Theatre, in the middle with the audience divided into halves and placed on each side, facing each other – allows for an intimacy that heightens the intensity. Music both during and between scenes is excessively loud, hammering home the discomfort. And there is plenty of discomfort – on paper the material would be shocking enough; here, with these intense performances in such close proximity, it’s more accurately described as punishing.

Unapologetically brutal, shocking and intense, “Thyestes” is not an easy watch by any means. But the craft and sophistication make it hard to look away from.