Lucius Annaeus Seneca's Thyestes
Translated into English by Caryl Churchill
Directed by James Macdonald
with Ewan Stewart in the title role
The Royal Court Theatre co-production with City of Drama
The Green Room, Manchester, June 1-4 1994
The Royal Court Theatre, London, June 7-10 1994
Reviewed by Antony G. Keen
Department of History
University of Manchester
Any production of the Thyestes faces one almost insuperable problem from the beginning: it's not actually a terribly good play. It's badly paced (for a start, it's too short) and gory rather than horrific; the opening scene between the Fury and Tantalus is unnecessary; and the central theme - which seems to be you can get away with anything if you're a big enough bastard - might have had resonance in Neronian Rome but sits uneasily with a modern audience. Worst of all, the central characterisation of Thyestes, as a man sick of the fratricidal struggle, is at odds with the requirements of the plot. For Atreus' plan to work, as he observes, Thyestes has to be as eager to get Atreus as his brother is to get him. But though Atreus is forever harping on about how he merely anticipated Thyestes in crime, nothing else in the play supports this contention. As a result, when Thyestes sticks his head in Atreus' noose, he appears foolish. In the best Classical tragedy, such as the Oedipus Tyrannus or the Medea, the audience's sympathy is aroused though the inevitability of the disasters that befall the characters; Thyestes' fate seems more the result of his own stupidity.
So credit must go to the Royal Court and Caryl Churchill for tackling such unpromising material. Churchill is of course not unfamiliar with Classical tragedy - a production of A Mouthful of Birds, jointly written with David Lan and based on the Bacchae, was reviewed in Didaskalia 1.2 - and her translation is the best feature of this production; it is largely true to Seneca, yet modern and playable without descending into the distracting modernisms favoured by such translators as Don Taylor. The more obscure ancient references are eliminated, but ones which a modern audience would pick up are left more-or-less intact.
Sadly, the Royal Court's production tries to jazz up the proceedings with electronic fripperies. The audience enters the theatre past a small box room in which there is a dining table (where eventually Thyestes will eat his meal), and which has a video camera pointed at it. Once in the theatre, the first thing that confronts the audience is a pair of large television screens, set up so that everybody can see clearly one or the other. Displayed on here in succession are shots of the table, a man, who turns out to be Atreus, looking out of a window, and a grey area which turns out, to no-one's surprise, to be Hades. All three scenes have appropriate 'atmospheric' music. This video device is used throughout the play, and occasionally it works, such as when Atreus watches the approach of Thyestes on screen, or when he watches his brother's meal. More often, however, it's a distraction, and sometimes, such as when the one- man Chorus delivers an ode with a camcorder up his nose, the camera's picture repeated on the screens behind him, it's just silly. Our 'enjoyment' of the device is not helped when in the middle of the production Atreus places a standard lamp in front of one screen, effectively obscuring the action therein for half the audience. I should perhaps add that my opinion of the screens is not shared by all - Paul Taylor in The Independent for June 8 is far more enthusiastic, though citing as the successes the same points as I. To me however, this is an attempt to do a television production in the theatre, and my preference is for productions which exploit the strengths of the medium they are produced in, rather than attempt to compensate for not being done in a different medium.
On the acting side, the best performances are given by Ewan Stewart as the Ghost of Tantalus and Thyestes, and Sebastian Harcombe as the Fury and the younger Tantalus. Stewart makes you believe in Thyestes as the weary brother and almost makes you forget the illogicality of his actions, and when the two are working together, the production is at its best. One can almost believe that Thyestes returns to Argos against his better judgement in order to indulge his naive son. Particular credit should go to them for finding some kind of sense in the Fury scene, and especially to Harcombe for coming through the scene with some dignity intact, despite being asked to vomit onstage and being dressed as a extra from The Rocky Horror Show.
The other performances are less effective. Rhys Ifans as the Chorus has a difficult task, as the Chorus in Thyestes is almost irrelevant to proceedings; it tends to comment academically on events rather than articulate the audience's reactions. James Macdonald's approach to the Chorus is to have him walk off at the end of each ode and sit on a chair which the audience can see on another screen; this serves to distance the Chorus even further from the action and the audience. James Kennedy as the Minister (a role combined for this production with the Messenger) gives a perfunctory performance as Atreus' right- hand man, but redeems himself in the Messenger's speech.
Least successful is Kevin McMonagle as Atreus. He fails to express the overpowering rage at his brother that Atreus must feel to commit the acts he does. McMonagle instead plays him as a stereotypical Glas.