The house of Tantalus really like to keep it in the family. A few years before, the head of the clan served up his own son on a plate and now Atreus and Thyestes are kicking up one hell of a brotherly tiff. This lot make Christmas in Albert Square look like a walk in the park.
I don’t understand why Thyestes is so rarely performed. Granted, it’s not an easy play to stomach but Seneca dishes out a terrifying fable. We are presented with the devastating continuity of bloodlust and Caryl Churchill’s brisk, sparse translation spares us nothing.
To enter the main studio at the Arcola is to find yourself in a dank, underground cellar strewn with filing cabinets and dark secrets, into which the sun hopelessly tries to break. There is little doubt we are in hell.
Polly Findlay has orchestrated a truly haunting production that conjures up a genuinely eerie sense of menace and dread. Mutterings from the floors above get closer and absent children flicker across ledgers before vanishing as blood drips down the security monitors. From the moment Jamie Ballard’s ghost emerges from an oil drum gasping for air, the evening never lessens its grip.
Ballard also returns (minus other-worldly contact lenses) in the title role and beautifully captures the unease of a man who cannot locate the precise nature of his fears until it is too late. Meanwhile Nick Fletcher offers an utterly chilling performance of a besuited butcher whose pulse barely quickens as he plunges in the knife. These are two brothers who are forever cursed to mirror the other’s emptiness.
This is a taut, searing evening, full of telling detail. Time and again, we catch shuddering glimpses of a familiar domesticity that has been irrevocably warped.