The story of Atreus and Thyestes is Greek, but the earliest play dedicated to it that survived for us is Seneca’s Thyestes, and it is this version, in a translation by Caryl Churchill, that it is being presented at the Arcola.
When it comes to incest and unspeakable horrors, nobody does it quite like the Greeks, and it is from the Greeks that Seneca is taking his plot. He might have been particularly fond of what Eliot called, in discussing him, ‘the posture which gives the greatest opportunity for effect [...], the posture of dying’, but the story he is telling is part of a myth that describes how the same family committed terrifying sin after terrifying sin, generation after generation. As the notes tell us, brothers Atreus and Thyestes, who have been fighting over the kingdom of Argos with alternating fortunes for a number of years, are the grandchildren of that same Tantalus who received the proverbial torment as a punishment for killing his son, Pelops, cutting him up, boiling him, and serving him to the gods as food.
If you think this is bad, wait until you hear the rest: without giving away too much of Atreus’s plan of revenge against his brother, whose accomplishment is the moving centre of Seneca’s play, I can reveal that Atreus’s son is none other than Agamemnon, the guy from the Iliad who, a few years after these events take place, will kill his own daughter, Iphigenia, to get the good winds he needs to leave for Troy, thus perpetuating the sin of his ancestors. It does not end here, as it never does in Greek myth once sin has stained your family, and Agamemnon’s murder and the murder that avenges his murder are the subjects of arguably the most influential tragic trilogy in literature, Aeschylus’s Oresteia.
It is fitting to the general character of Atreus’ and Thyestes’ family, then, and to the feelings evoked by it from ancient times through to Renaissance, that Hannah Clark’s set for this production recalls, with exactitude and gusto, the dirty basements lit by dangling lightbulbs recently seen in so many horror movies, from Hostel to the Saw series: this is a central episode in a gory story of inbred love, cannibalism and torture, whose text requires to show on stage the severed heads and hands of three children - Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, by comparison, is a Disney movie.
And it is also fitting that the evening begins with a heart-stopping, beautifully staged (with a wink to Beckett) appearance by the ghost of the brothers’ grandfather, Tantalus himself, called back from the kingdom of death by a Fury, and encouraged to spur anger and hate in his grandchildren’s hearts. Jamie Ballard, who doubles as Thyestes, is at his best in these first ten minutes of howling and groping in the darkness, begging to be sent back to Hell rather than having to witness the nightmare that will ensue. The real star of the night, however, might be Nick Fletcher, who plays Atreus with the kind of darkness that would deserve to be called ‘dark humour’ if this wasn’t one of the most abused expressions in theatre programmes; Fletcher, sharp and disturbing, with a certain detachment à la Patrick Bateman, appropriates Seneca’s lines in a way that makes Seneca urgent, powerful, and most importantly completely understandable even to those who have never had anything to do with classics before.
The same cannot be said, on the other hand, of the choice of turning the chorus into a janitor, played by Michael Grady-Hall, blameless for the fact that most of his dramatic function, or point, gets lost in translation. A chorus is always a problematic thing to get into 21st century theatres, and even more so if it is a chorus by Seneca: he was famous for being particularly monotonous at them. Yet some contemporary plays, like Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, cleverly produced in a new translation at the Royal Court less than two years ago, managed to give it a twist that proves it is not altogether impossible to make it work.
But chorus apart, this is a gloriously gut-churning production, with little touches of directing brilliance from Polly Findlay. The moment in which Atreus spies his brother and nephews coming into his trap from a small CCTV screen is chillingly appropriate. The video design, created by Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions, is one of the most anticipated aspects of the evening, and does not fail to impress, with very believable ghosts and blood stains flashing in front of our eyes. Everything comes together as highly stylish but not obnoxious. And yes, it is also quite scary.
Till 27 June 2009