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March 1, 2018

Thyestes: An ancient, familiar terror

Out from amid the archetypes of an ancient tale of horror and violence, this Australian production of Thyestes pulls something searing and terrifyingly familiar.

  • Picture: Jeff Busby

Thyestes is a Greek myth as violent and grandiose as (or perhaps more than) any other.

The tale of two brothers who fall into an intricate web of increasing violence and unthinkable brutality in attempts to gain power stings with the themes of corruption and greed that colour any classic tragedy.

But the Australian adaptation from Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter – while taking Seneca’s traditional text as its base line – moves the tale light years away from the other-worldly realm of ancient royal squabbles and locates it firmly in the familiar.

This transformation isn’t achieved through re-setting the story in a modern context or painting the characters in new life roles. Instead, it’s created by capturing the gravity of horrific acts in the mood of more recognisable scenes. 

“It takes something colossal – like a huge battle – and presents it as two people sitting around talking,” says co-writer Thomas Henning, who also plays Thyestes in the production.

“But there’s a tension that sits under everything. It would all be very mundane except for the weight of what is at stake. And, I think the greatest horror exists mostly in our minds. The more you show, the less space you give people to actually feel it.”

The success of this re-imagining of the story’s intensity is underwritten by a deeper exploration of character than permitted by the classic text, which relies largely on archetypes.

“We wanted to know who these people are before we see what they go through,” says Thomas. 

“So – in writing – we started by looking at figures throughout history and unpacking their psychology – trying to understand how and why they could do the things they had done.

“One of the main people we looked at was Uday Hussein for the Atreus character, because he allowed us to consider what happens when someone who is totally amoral is given ultimate power.”

The production was originally mounted in 2012, but has had a steady life since then,  touring the international festival circuit. Its appearance at Adelaide Festival will mark its premiere in this city. 

While it was performed in Europe without some of the original cast, the Adelaide production features the same actors as the 2012 version. Thomas says the changes they’ve undergone personally in that time will likely create some new experiences on stage.

“It is a very intimate style of performance, so there is a lot of self in it,” he says. “It really is influenced by what has happened to us in the intervening years.”

Still — returning to the show, harrowing though it may be, is welcome for Thomas, who now is based in Timor Leste and works mostly in film.

“Often it is much more horrific for the audience than it is for us,” he says.

But while it mightn’t be easy watching, Thyestes is also hard to look away from – its enthralling horror part of what has earned it a reputation as one of Australia’s newest stage classics.

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