By The Hayloft Project/Malthouse Theatre. CUB Malthouse until October 9.
Everyone bangs on about the Greeks inventing democracy, but they also tried some other pretty nifty methods of governance too. After Thyestes and his brother Atreus kill their half-brother Chrysippus they end up taking the throne and decide to take turns being king. I don't know about you, but I reckon going swapsies on leading the country is an idea we never really gave a full go.
Thyestes decides he's really into the king thing and one day goes “nuh-uh, it's mine forever now dude” and steals Atreus' wife to boot. What a rotten skunk. Atreus eventually does some stuff that gets him back in power, but this is where the tale really gets nasty. Now that he's back in power and everything is pretty much restored to its proper equilibrium, you'd think the story would end with Atreus and Thyestes looking at the audience and giving one of those “whuddyagonnado?” shrugs. Instead, Atreus cooks Thyestes' little boys and makes him unwittingly eat them.
I'm pleased to report that I was offended by this production. There were a few points where I honestly found myself curling up and thinking “geez, that's a bit much, fellas.” Which helped me realise that I can't remember the last time I had such a reaction. It's probably partly because we've seen most things before and it's very difficult to really shock an audience with something genuinely new. Equally, admitting to being offended can seem like a failing, as prudish or conservative or naïve. We might call something offensive, but making the offence a quality of the thing at hand rather than a personal response distances us from our own involvement in the process.
Anyway, Thyestes is, for me, genuinely transgressive stuff. Not just in the sense that it traverses boundaries of taste, since that (again) is a pretty inconstant qualifier. Rather, it makes void those distinctions. I don't think this is a show that can be categorised as good or bad. That's its genius.
The terrible question that always haunts a critic and, I suppose, most members of an audience is: “Is this good or bad?” It makes as much sense to ask whether a work is good or evil. But it's a question that almost always asserts itself and I'd say the critic's job is to stifle that inner voice and remain constantly vigilant to its intrusions. There are other questions, lots of 'em, that are far more interesting.
And then there are works that strangle that voice for you. If someone offers you a free jet-pack, you don't ask what colour. Thyestes simply can't be understood as a good or bad production. It's brilliant and horrible and clever and brutish and pointless and necessary. There aren't that many words that don't, in some way, connote 'good' or 'bad' in the final account – but this production deserves most of them, from both sides of the fence. (And I've just noticed David Mence has had a similar reaction over at Theatre Notes).
I've found that violent abolition of quality judgements in some of the Black Lung's previous work – it's tempting to say that the contributions of a few Black Lung members to Thyestes have nudged it in the same direction but I think that would be to underestimate director Simon Stone's own accomplishments here. This isn't a Black Lung show at all – it's a Hayloft piece, with distinct connections to Stone's earlier work, which also suggests new directions he's interested in taking.
Enough of my squawking, though. Don't bother reading about this show. Just go see it.