I have seen some very good theatre recently in a very short succession: not more than 3 weeks apart, I saw what I think are likely to be the best three shows in Melbourne this year. These are Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop, version 1.0’s This Kind of Ruckus and Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. I’ve been meaning to dedicate a great deal of time to each one of them, but life keeps getting in the way. (I’ve been badly unwell.) But let’s start with one.
Fortunately, Thyestes sold out as it opened, and so did the short extension to the season. I have to say I was very, very pleased: not just because it is excellent theatre which deserved to sell out, but because it absolved me from the responsibility to write quick praise in order to promote the show (the silly burden which all reviewers feel, however small their readership). It’s given me time to really consider its propositions.
I’ve been tossing it left and right in my head for weeks now, Thyestes, and it only gets better as I do. It is possibly the best work that either Hayloft or Black Lung have done so far, and certainly among the best two or three we will see in Melbourne this year, local or international. It deserves a return season. Most importantly, it is both brave and bold, and highly accomplished. Last year, when I got cross with Cameron for dismissing Hayloft and Black Lung’s 3xSisters (for lack of accomplishment where there were many ideas), I did it because I thought it was important to encourage courageous formal and conceptual inquiry. I was worried Hayloft Project might, as many young theatre-makers have before them, settle for the limited set of achievements they have been praised for early on, rather than grow as artists, a path that’s always much less readily rewarded. 3xSisters was a courageous experiment in theatre-making, on a scale rarely attempted by Melbourne’s self-funded independent theatre, and even if its accomplishments were rough and probably not entirely intended, a year on it still remains fresh in my memory as a very good theatrical work. Had it been a film, I dare say it would have been amply reappraised in the years to come. Being theatre, the best I can hope is that blogs will keep it unforgotten.
Thyestes is a whole other story, a project as radical as it is rigorously put together. If with 3xSisters the beauty was in the chaos, here I am in no doubt that the creative team were in full control of the final result, that every effect was intended. It demonstrates tremendous growth for Simon Stone, Mark Winter, Thomas Henning and Anne-Louise Sarks (who have all worked on 3xSisters). Chris Ryan, whom we have encountered in Hayloft’s Platonov and The Promise, but whom I – perhaps unfairly – didn’t see as a theatre-maker prior to Thyestes, turns out to be an excellent creative collaborator in his own right. But most impressively, and as the weeks went by I kept underlying this point in my mind with a mental marker, what strikes me as significant about Thyestes is that its own aspirations are so much higher than that of its own context. It’s a theatre show by young theatre-makers, produced in Malthouse’s fringe Tower space, and it shames most mainstage theatre in the city. Yes, many eyes were eagerly awaiting the opening night, but Stone and his creative team would have gotten high praise for much less.
Hayloft’s version retells Seneca’s dramatisation of the Greek myth (or, rather, the history of the house of Atreus, since the story spans three generations of sons) through a very simple dramaturgical frame. So simple and clear, indeed, that there are exactly two moments of surprise in the entire evening. The first is the beginning, when the surtitles rattle off the summary of the scene (Thyestes and Atreus are convinced by mother Hippodamia to kill their half-brother and heir to the throne), and the screen lifts on a traverse stage to reveal three young men in contemporary clothing, listening to music and having a casual discussion about girlfriends, sex and a flight to Guatemala. The second is in the middle, when the count jumps from scene 6 to 14, the murder of Atreus. The conceit could not be simpler: the surtitles propel the narrative, but it is the in-between moments we see, mundane conversations; brotherly rivalry; games of ping-pong. So simple, indeed, that the day after I saw it I was considering dismissing Thyestes for imaginative poverty.
For, let’s be honest, there is only so much Tarantino the world needs, and Tarantino himself is productive enough to satisfy the demand. The day after I saw this production, I was wondering mainly if it was apparent to everyone else how much debt Thyestes owes to Reservoir Dogs. The ghost of 90s cinema, its casual gun-toting, pop-cultural referencing and drawn-out, banal conversations haunts the oeuvre of Black Lung (whose Thomas Henning and Mark Winter have had significant creative input on both Thyestes and 3xSisters), appearing in the most unlikely places like some terrible rash: see Mark Winter’s bit of 3xSisters (via Scorsese).
Since every generation comes of age during a particular fad, so did our generation, perhaps, internalise Tarantino the way neither the previous nor the successive have: one for being too old not to be critical, the other because Joanna Newsom and The Quirky Indie Cinema appeared. And, fifteen years since Pulp Fiction, how much does it matter? What traumas are we tackling when we deal with such subject matter as friends shooting each other in cold blood, while Roy Orbison is playing? Mainly cinematic ones, I suspect. It is a kind of violence, cool and detached, ironic, swift, that very few people have ever experienced – I, for example, never. And while I see some of the appeal, the aesthetic appeal, and while I understand that some tropes get engraved in our collective young minds at ages too young to argue – I wonder: how does the generation of the Quirky Indie Cinema understand something like Thyestes? Does it have a relevance for them, does it stand alone as a meaningful artefact, or is it simply an incomprehensible set of images, point of reference lost? And without the reference, is there a purpose for these tropes?
Another possibility is that the drawn-out banality of the conversations (brothers reminiscing about childhood, long descriptions of sex, discussions on Roy Orbison) assumes a macabre shimmer because of what we know happens before or after: that a semiotic polyphony, shall we say, appears between the text and the subtext (semiotic and not just semantic; that we see two things at once). This certainly happens. But in itself, it is insufficient as argument of quality. If this was all that Thyestes did, it would be a fine, but not a great work.
Then, however, in Richard Sennett’s writing I came across this:
(…) Under the modern code of private meaning, the relations between impersonal and intimate experience have no clarity. We see society itself as “meaningful” only be converting it into a grand psychic system. We may understand that a politician’s job is to draft or execute legislation, but that work does not interest us until we perceive the play of personality in political struggle. A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programs he espouses.
Because this psychological imagination of life has broad social consequences, I want to call it by a name that may at first seem inapt: this imagination is an intimate vision of society. “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely because we have come to expect these psychological benefits throughout the range of our experience, and precisely because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty.
I want to leave these paragraphs for now.
In the program notes, Stone writes:
Consider the irreconcilable difference between this proposition, which Thyestes by all means proves, that the horror of the Greek myth is extratemporal, and the shadow of datedness over Tarantino. What to do with it? On the one hand, after years of contemporising classics by, exempli gratia Thomas Ostermeier, it’s reasonable to ask why we contemporise. Is it just to give vividness to an ancient text or story, to do justice to a classic? There is a certain binging quality to Thyestes that I’ve also found in Ostermeier’s Nora and Hedda Gabler, an overabundance of things, of set, of contemporary slang, of clothing articles, of holes of incongruity sewn up. The effect is curiously akin to television – no suspension of disbelief is necessary.
But neither this is the right answer. The key piece of puzzle, instead, is in Chris Ryan’s role as the multiplicity of women in the show. His performance as the uber-realistic, Green-bag-carrying wife, or violated bride, is not just a masterly demonstration of how little acting has to do with physical attributes, and how much with illusion. (Although it is a bona fide metamorphosis, yes.) What is interesting, instead, is that there are no women on stage. Not only does this pull the mythical universe tighter together into a boyish world of rivalry and revenge; but it also shuts it from any external ontology. Or, put more simply, there is no public realm in Thyestes: it is a sealed private world.
Perhaps this will demonstrate my theatre-viewing naivete, but there are productions, usually terribly naturalistic ones, in which I can just about picture the outside world. In which the materiality of the stage does not win over the evocative descriptions of those events somewhere else. Thyestes is one of them: between the screen lifting and falling, my mind was whirling between the public and the private realm. Why?, I don’t know. Because the stage was so suffocatingly private, is my guess. Because everything happening was a kind of game with no consequences, in which all that mattered was the dynamic between two, sometimes three people, and in which rules were written by boys, the way Tarantino’s films happen in a boy-universe. If all women were played by a man, this was an aesthetic and political choice. Not only was it less gruesome to watch sexual violence inflicted on a male body playing female, but having a female body there would have, I suspect, broken the illusion. A female presence, body, voice, would not have played by the same rules, would have exposed the game for the banality that it is. (It makes more sense to me, now, while so many such films and plays and books feature no female characters whatsoever, and why, when they do, the women are caricatured into the extreme or left as vacuous enigmas – think Motoko Kusanagi, Ramona Flowers, the Bride.) It was interesting to note that Ryan played girlfriends and women that assumed caring and matey roles, rather than sensual or sexual; the nagging question being, after a while, whether this is an accurate depiction of Australian women (someone, somewhere, noted that Australian culture is hyper-masculine, posing problems for expression of femininity for both women and men), or another way to lessen the feminine quotient in the show. (The second question is whether this is a ludicrous question.)
A circular semiology opens here, with the 90s cinema, Thyestes, the Greek myth, and the reality it points to (Robert Graves refers the myth of the House of Atreus to actual sibling kings and a throne dispute) all pointing to each other, all signifying one another, all cases of a boy-universe, in which women are just colourful background, like a deck of collectable cards, the possession of which positions the players hierarchically, into relative winners and losers. The point being not that Thyestes is the male equivalent of a chick flick (dude-play?) – which it certainly is – but that Tarantino’s universe is an apt place where to translate the myth of the House of Atreus.
When Sennett writes about the fall of the public man, the ontological shift he refers to (between the Roman for whom the home was a place for reflection on the public world, and a baby boomer for whom it was a coccoon), is the shift between tragedy as Commonly Understood (as a public event, shall we generalise?), and whatever happens in Thyestes. The ugly underside of Thyestes, which I suppose is where its emotional impact hides, is a private sordidness which has become unanchored in any sort of public life. (Something similar happens to certain kinds of American indie, say Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan or Todd Solonz’s films, in which violence and suffering have lost any relationship to grand ideas, purpose, or even audience, and instead float in a landscape of outer-suburban nursing homes, endless freeways, squalid rental apartments. Such stories are that harder to bear for the complete absence of grand narrative that could underpin the enormity of the horror they depict.)
The story could go on: some critics have written about Nietzsche, some about Heidegger, some about Benjamin and Bernhardt. It is, certainly, a production that can bear the weight of all these interpretations. Like any truly interesting work of art, it only gets better on rereading.