Like any decent critic, JAMES MACNAMARA enjoys watching actors kill and eat each other onstage.
ADC, 1st – 4th February, 11pm, £5-6
Directed/Adapted by Rachel Cunliffe and Phil Howe
Theatre reviewing is a serious business. If one were to trivialise it, some of the more passionate theatrical contingent might become upset. Similarly, those serious about Seneca might anger if a particularly gruesome and vivid play of his were to be treated with the light-hearted touch. They might, conceivably, redden in the face until they went pop. Just from the pure indolence of the thing.
Pop. This production of Thyestes doesn’t quite trivialise Seneca’s difficult text, but it is certainly a light-hearted affair. The underpinning conceit is a clever one. Set in a modern theatre, a production of Thyestes is being staged. The actor playing Atreus is a psychopath, and intensely jealous of the actor playing Thyestes. As is the director. They plan to sadistically humiliate him, in the manner suggested by the play they are undertaking. That involves, of course, getting whiffled and cannibalising a few family members. Or, at least, the actors playing them.
So far, so meta-theatre. I think Rachel Cunliffe and Phil Howe had the right idea in tackling the play like this. To a modern audience, as they say in the program notes, the perverse violence can only be absurd, and consequently amusing. The story is hilarious. And last night there was plenty of laughter, and a good time was had by all.
However, there are problems. Beyond the sheen of ‘meta’ and topical jest, people are actually killed and served up to an unsuspecting friend. I’m all for laughing at this sort of thing, but only when the evil in the events is successfully recuperated by the structure of what contains them. That is to say, it all has to work very well for the humour to be successful. It wasn’t quite clear until the very end of the play what was really going on, and by then the resonance was lost. It could have been very, very funny – but it ended up being uncomfortable, despite the promise of the original idea.
The performances, however, did much to atone for these shortcomings. The chorus were charming, their sudden shifts between the backstage conversation and bad acting of the original text (the play within) were universally excellent. Georgia Ingles stood out as the whimsical, forgetful one of the bunch, and was hopelessly lovable and very funny. Mark Wartenberg got the biggest laughs of the evening with his breathless, barely intelligible messenger. Stephen Bermingham’s Atreus was wonderfully chilling, pitched expertly between Igor and Norman Bates.
His was an assured performance, let down by some of the interactions he was involved in. Too much was filler, and too much had no bearing on the play’s internal mechanism. But it’s clear that Cunliffe and Howe are inexperienced directors, so they can be forgiven for not realising just how good and original the twist they came up with is. They also did well to keep things simple – the set was very minimal but worked well, and the lighting was subtle but exemplary. Nice details, like the backstage book and bottle of water, and the director (of the play within) sitting in front of me writing things like ‘FUCK TOM’ in his notebook, also warmed me to them. Give them a chance, I say.
So, a good idea that didn’t quite come together with a nice, loud click. It will be easy for some to say that this production makes a difficult text little more than an evening’s light entertainment, and that it trivialises extremely difficult ideas. It would be a fair point. But might I say in reply: this is the second time in the course of reviewing that I’ve almost seen Ailis Creavin’s boobs. So there.