Family love with Caryl Churchill
And now, for a breath of fresh air, another Greek play as done by the Brits. Interesting that Greek theater is neither my personal forte, nor is it something I find particularly compelling or accessible, and so far it dominates 100% of my blog posts. My apologies, but at the end of the day, the one theatrical rule that I ALWAYS live by is that if something has Caryl Churchill’s name attached to it, I will do everything in my power to experience it. Even if that means dragging my confused American self halfway across London on the day of a massive tube strike. Even if that means having to sit through 75 minutes of one of the most disturbing spectacles I’ve ever seen. Even if that means having to convince my mother that going with me to watch one [admittedly disturbed] man kill his nephews and feed their corpses to his unsuspecting brother is, indeed, worth her time. Because let’s face it: I’m a HUGE Caryl Churchill fan.
I can’t remember when I read my first Caryl Churchill play, but it has to have been Top Girls. Churchill is everything I aspire to be as a playwright: funny, concise, ruthless, accessible, urgent and relevant. I have the ultimate school girl crush on her, and believe without question that everything she touches turns to gold. I’ll admit that part of my secret desire to see Thyestes was the insane hope that I’d see her in the audience: didn’t happen. (That’s OK, though…because really, what would I have done? “Hi, Mrs. Churchill, just wanted to let you know that I worship the ground you walk on. Will you let me touch you?” – I’ve never been good at impromptu meetings with my idols.)
Churchill’s connection to this production of Thyestes was as translator/adaptor. My mom and I spent the first hour or so of our recent trip to London scanning some City Cultural Magazine which lists all theatrical productions currently playing. On a whim, I checked to see if there were any Churchill plays running, and was delighted to discover this one. Had I heard of the Arcola theater? No. Had I ever read/heard of Thyestes? No. Had I heard of Seneca? Well…I’d heard the name…once… Did any of this matter? No. If it was Caryl Churchill, I was going to go see it.
The Arcola theater oozed that particularly pretentious brand of hipster charm, tucked away in a completely un-touristy neighborhood of London and populated by artists and artistic-types who try really hard to look like they’re not trying too hard. (OK, that might have been a little harsh. One of these days I’m just going to have to suck it up and christen myself a hipster artist along with the rest of them…) The performance was devistatingly empty – I don’t think there could have been more of 20 of us in the audience, but it was a small space so the undercrowding of the house made less of an impact. I might describe my proximity to the performance space as “chillingly intimate”. Set up like an old, dark, wet, grimy warehouse storeroom, the set was inhabited with equal discomfort by unhappy gods or the unhappy damned that they tormented throughout the piece.
Here’s your barebones version of the story before I continue: The House of Atreus is hella-cursed. Grandpa Tantalus is living in hell being tormented by Hades, but he’s taken out of his torment for a minute by some fury/demon/god thing who wants to remind him that the rest of his issue are going to be as cursed and unhappy as him. Terrific. Meanwhile, his grandson Atreus is extremely pissed at his twin brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and potentially stealing his kingdom. I wish I could tell you Atreus is “cut-Thyestes-out-of-the-will” or “don’t-send-Thyestes-a-Christmas-card-this-year” pissed, but that just doesn’t make good Greek drama. Instead, Atreus is “secretly-trick-brother-into-coming-for-a-visit-then-when-he’s-not-paying-attention-steal-his-sons-kill-them-and-feed-them-to-Thyestes” pissed. Tragedy ensues.
If you can imagine, this play was even more disturbing than it’s description. The technical elements were immaculately executed – lights flickered and images that I could have SWORN were really happening became video projections right before my eyes. As the messenger, terrifically performed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, comes on to tell the chorus how Atreus has killed his young nephews, the space seems to react with as much anger and horror as the chorus himself. The lights cut out, leaving a terrified Chorus to cry in the dark. Several television screens, stacked arbitrarily in a corner of the space and seemingly non-functional suddenly illuminate to black and white static. As the messenger continues to talk, the black and white static changes to blood red, and begins to literally drip OFF OF the screen to the floor below. (How did they do it? I’ve decided after weeks of speculation that most likely there was something projecting static ONTO the screens from above that could easily extend a projected image away from the screen. At the time, however, it was a terrifying visual mind fuck.)
To my delight, Caryl Churchill’s imprint was all over this production. The prose was perfectly translated with her blunt, curt slices, and I could easily hear her voice through Atreus’ demented fascination with revenge and Thyestes’ explosive horror and shock at his brother’s actions. I often feel, after reading a Caryl Churchill play, that I’ve been slapped in the face a bit by her passion, focus, and ruthlessness. And seeing Thyestes felt like far more than a slap. It was like a verbal beat down by the sickest depths of human detriment. Am I glad I saw the play? Absolutely. It was an immersive journey into a darkness I only want to visit in the theater. Unlike Phedre, Thyestes didn’t demand pity for its characters. It expected you to be as repulsed by them as they are by themselves. “Oh, you’re here to watch us?” they seem to ask as the play begins, “Well, your choice. Good luck with that.”
The good news? Thyestes ran a short 75 minutes. I don’t think any of us in the audience could have handled more.