I seriously considered not reviewing this play. Not because I didn’t like it – it is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – but because I really, really didn’t want to think about it again. Even now, I’m going to have to write this review quickly, because I can’t bear to dwell on it. Thyestes is theatre at its most visceral, its most bloody, an almost primeval experience of horror.
In fact, if I was being 100% accurate about my reaction to this show, I would probably just write HOLY FUCK over and over again. It was about all I was capable of saying for about half an hour after the show ended. I was very glad that I saw Thyestes as a matinee, that I could walk out into daylight afterwards. Walking out into darkness would have been... let’s just say I would have had nightmares.
This play, devised by Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter, takes Seneca’s tragedy as its basis. For those unfamiliar with the myth of Thyestes, here is a quick summary. Atreus and Thyestes are brothers who, after various political happenings, are joint kings of the land of Mycenae. Thyestes is exiled after sleeping with Atreus’s wife. Atreus, in a gruesome act of revenge, invites Thyestes to a feast, where the main course is Thyestes’s two young sons.
It is easy to read this, go, “ewww, gross”, and never think of it again. I majored in Classics at university, so I was familiar with the myth, but had never given it much thought. Like all classical myth, the modern reader is at a distance. We read about Zeus turning himself into a bull and raping Europa or Myrrha seducing her father, write essays on them, without really grasping the horror behind them. The starting point behind the Hayloft Project’s re-imagination of Thyestes was THESE MYTHS ARE REAL (all caps theirs and totally necessary). Thyestes takes place in the spaces between the myth, behind storybook politics. It takes away the distance between us and classical myth and locates it in the machinations of everyday. We see through the white box that is the stage to the audience on the other side. We see through the story to the horror – the horror inherent in the myths that were, in many ways, the genesis of Western society.
It’s easy to throw incest or cannibalism or rape or murder or violence or whatever into a play as a kind of cheap trick, some Big Issue (tm) with which to make the play seem shocking. When it’s done this way – done cheap – it makes something which is horrifying seem camp and almost comical. Thyestes has all of these horrible things in it. So many atrocities occur in this play it’s hard to recall them all. (I mentioned the scene where Thyestes rapes his daughter to my sister afterwards, and she said, “oh yeah... I forgot about that.” If you can forget about a scene as awful as that one, you know there is a metric fuck-ton of awful happenings in the play.) But this show does not use the horror inherent in the act to make theatre. Rather, it makes theatre to enhance the horror of the act.
During the last scene of the play (it ends in the middle, with the Thyestian feast), I seriously thought I was going to throw up. When the curtain went down, I was thankful that they’d left it at that, at Atreus’s eerie laugh. But no, it came up again. And again. And again. And each time was more and more horrible until, when it came down for the last time, I had literally broken out into a cold sweat. Stumbling out into the daylight, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I could keep myself from being sick. I knew this myth. I knew exactly what story I was in for on this rainy Wednesday afternoon. The cannibalism, the incest, the everything – it was not a surprise. And this play still made me feel like this – had an actual physical effect on me that it took many more glasses of wine than I’m proud of to calm myself down.
I can’t fault this play at all, but special mention must go to Mark Winter, who played Atreus. I don’t know if I have ever seen a more chilling performance. My sister, who is a psychology student, said that he was the perfect psychopath – outwardly charming, charismatic, funny, but inwardly twisted, perverted, mad. He was utterly, utterly terrifying, and because of him, I don’t think I will ever be able to eat spaghetti or choc-tops again.
Thyestes is not for the queasy. It is incredible theatre, but I would never, ever want to see it again. I don’t want to think about it again. But you should see it. You have until February 19. It is amazing. It is a theatrical experience that will give you nightmares, a theatrical experience that will probably have an actual physical effect on you, a theatrical experience that will ensure you never read myth disinterestedly ever again, a theatrical experience you will always, always remember – for both the right and the wrong reasons.