Derailed Theatre’s debut production thrusts us back to Ancient Greece with a disconcertingly familiar whiff of contemporaneous conservative leadership politics. It’s the hand of fate reaffirming theatre’s power to mirror reality; a brutal reality in the case of this Greek tragedy. A stab in the back would be child’s play.
Being gripping, raw and edgy are some of the key strengths of this Senecan interpretation
The stage is set for an immersive audience experience as the seating lines two sides of a long banquet table as would-be guests attend the grimmest birthday party of all time, party hats ready, everyone is rightly uncomfortable. As the four actors discuss a boardroom takeover, it opens like a chorus, with an admittedly confusing, fractured explanation of the context to the play which is subtle and swiftly ricochets between Atreus, temporary head of the family, and three other actors placed amongst the guests. Are they family-members or chorusesque sounding boards? It’s hard to tell as director Joseph Cunningham lives up to his derailing motto: to create exhilarating, risk-taking work to challenge audiences.
Cleverly, the absurdist melodrama of the birthday scene paves the way for a tour through a disturbing series of ambitious modern theatrical techniques. Smoke, gory scenes that are merely feet away, Greek Furies that are doubled and blended into the cast, but the highlight of which is the puppetry behind Tantalus; nephew to Atreus and the son of Thyestes. ‘He’ appears as a floating white mask with only a black sheet for a body. Each of his hands is operated by one of the two female actresses dressed in their ‘Fury’ guises used for the chorus. The eloquent tilting head and intricate hand gestures render such a seemingly basic and muted marionette. The fear and fascination of his time with Atreus is the most arresting and horrific act. It’s a stand-out example of less-is-more and brilliantly challenges the power of imagination.
Being gripping, raw and edgy are some of the key strengths of this Senecan interpretation, however those features also form some of its weaknesses. Namely, that it tries a bit too hard. Two brief interpretative dance sequences don’t quite strike the modern/classic balance that is very effective elsewhere. Also, the sub-plot feels truncated, possibly in the cause of condensing complex original material. The fraternal power struggle is the key set-piece, but Thyestes (the character, not actor) doesn’t really appear in his true individual state until the drastic climactic act. This was a shame, blurring the focus of what was already a deliberately chaotic piece.
It’s a play with the audience in the heart of the action, without being off-puttingly interactive. The claustrophobia of the family dynamic and its mysterious ‘business’ are utterly engaging and aside from a few brow-furrowing moments there are genuine, if morbid, thrills throughout.