According to Polly Findlay, the director of Thyestes at the Arcola Theatre, there's a direct through-line from Seneca’s tragedy to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.
Could that be why this new production of the Roman drama, written in the first century AD, comes complete with video and flesh-creeping sound effects? “Absolutely” says Findlay, a much-garlanded young talent still in her 20s, “this is a play that gets right under your skin. I’m fascinated by the idea of doing a play that was written under Nero, and video is an evolving medium which can open up the language in a way that relates directly to the story.”
“Roman drama is right at the top of the food chain of our dramatic tradition – it’s in our dramatic DNA - and had a huge influence in the 16th century flowering of English drama. Shakespeare would have known more Latin than Greek, and drew heavily on Seneca in his own works.” By way of proof, she then declares that Thyestes contains elements of Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet. Not bad for a play that lasts for under 90 minutes.
“One thing theatre does that movies can’t,” she adds, “is make you feel that you’re really there, in the same room as the characters.” So, ancient drama, yes, but Findlay is keen to explore its immediacy, its sense of claustrophobia and its sheer scariness.
And in case you’re wondering just how scary it can be, suffice it to say that Atreus takes revenge on his brother Thyestes in a way that Shakespeare saw fit to borrow for Titus Andronicus. This is not a production for the faint-hearted. We are promised “a spine-tingling new staging to torment the senses… experimenting with the possibilities generated by the latest digital technologies.”
As if the references to Tarantino aren’t enough, she also reveals that the production is set very loosely in 1970s Uganda – where the tension between those in power (“despots in hot countries”) and those who have absolutely nothing is a potent parallel.
Polly Findlay won the JMK Trust Young Director Award in 2007, and an attachment to the National Theatre, where she worked with Marianne Elliott (on War Horse) and Conor McPherson (on The Seafarer), both of whom she claims as theatrical heroes of hers.
Her debt to the National is illustrated by the fact that most of the creative team and some of the cast of Thyestes are from the ranks of the NT, and she would love to return to the South Bank, perhaps to direct in her own right on the vast expanses of the Lyttelton or Olivier stages, but meanwhile she is rather more certain of directing a new play on the significantly smaller stage of the Bush next March. After the full-on revenge myth of the House of Atreus, she's looking forward to directing a play “about four people in a flat”.
Thyestes continues unti 27 June 2009.