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The Theatreguide.London Review

Arcola Theatre      June 2009

Like much of classical drama, Seneca's Thyestes (here in a translation by Caryl Churchill) deals with acts of brutal and horrible vengeance, and like most it keeps the bloodiest action offstage, to be reported at eloquent length by messengers.

So it is a tribute to director Polly Findlay and her admirable cast that they make a believable and engrossing human drama out of it.

We are two generations before Aeschylus's Oresteia. Atreus, grandfather of Agamemnon, has feuded with his brother Thyestes, feels himself wronged, and plots a terrible revenge, one that will draw on his house the curse that will take several generations to expiate.

The first half of the play is devoted to his thinking up, planning and luring his brother into his trap; the second, to the insane satisfaction he takes from watching it unfold.

Though little seems to be gained from director Findlay and designer Hannah Clark putting the play in modern dress and setting it in what looks like a factory storeroom, Findlay has drawn deeply involving and emotionally naked performances from her actors.

Jamie Ballard's Thyestes begins as an attractive mix of innocence and intelligence, aware that his brother is probably plotting against him but too attracted by the hope of reconciliation to resist taking the chance.

When the horrors come, Ballard must play extreme and almost incoherent agony, and does so with chilling exposure of raw emotion.

Nick Fletcher's Atreus is a subtler but no less powerful performance, as he shows us the preternatural calm of the truly insane, nowhere more frightening than when he settles in comfortably to watch his brother's agony as he might watch an insect whose legs he had pulled off.

There are solid performances as well by Michael Grady-Hall as a Chorus figure, Prasanna Puwanarajah as the messenger forced to report on the offstage horrors, and young Larry McCartney as a wiser-than-his-years child.

Caryl Churchill's translation has moments of attractive but not jarring naturalness, but for too much of its length maintains the stilted, self-consciously poetic style of academic translations of a century ago.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Thyestes - Arcola  Theatre 2009


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