Philomelagram: Montague Basement’s Procne & Tereus

I’m not normally one for the Greek tragedies. I don’t quite understand the validity and motivations behind the spate of recent modern adaptations of these stories or myths, especially the wider ethical and human ramifications of such stories when they are removed from their mythic settings. In his Director’s Notes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari discusses this very issue, asking “how do you tell this story? Why do you tell this story?” In trying to answer these questions, Lusty-Cavallari and his cast have created a piece of theatre which unfolds in degrees of increasing horror until it erupts in a revengeful rage.
Procne & Tereus is the debut production from new Sydney collective Montague Basement, and tells the story of Tereus who lusts after his wife’s sister Philomela. Unable to control himself, he brutally rapes and mutilates Philomela, hiding it from Procne, his wife, until the discovery reaps an unspeakably shocking revenge. As with other Greek tragedies, Procne and Tereus is by turns epic, human, full-blooded and, well, tragic. Where the story could have become garish or carnivalesque in another’s hands, Lusty-Cavallari keeps this production simple, clean and affecting, and it is all the more powerful for being so.

Staged in Darlinghurst’s Tap Gallery, the set is simple – a black box, with a black table, chairs, and a cabinet in a corner. There is much in this production which owes a debt to Simon Stone’s staging of The Wild Duck, Strange Interlude or Thyestes, whereby a story (myth, play, or otherwise) is transplanted into a contemporary setting, reconceived, but still owes much to the original’s plot and ideas, if not its text or dialogue. Lusty-Cavallari acknowledges this debt in his notes, but says where tellings of the story such as those found in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus or in Thyestes – “tales of cannibalism, rape and murder” – focus more on the path of revenge, the “familial insularity of this story contained something much more devastating.” And despite my initial misgivings about the approach, I have to agree.
Unfolding as four or five scenes out of the entire narrative, Procne & Tereus opens with a long dinner-table scene, innocuously “anti-dramatic” and “kitchen-sink mundane”, before shifting form and mode into a heightened moment of violent revenge. In this way it recalls Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, where each consecutive shoot-out is shot in an increasingly tighter frame, drawing us into the adrenaline-fuelled act until the climax unfolds in an unrelentingly tight close-up of a blood-bath. Right from the beginning we feel something is wrong, but it takes a scene or two for us to realise exactly what it is, exactly why our skin is crawling in unease; by the end, our stomachs are turning, but the full horror of the final scene comes not during the performance (where it is deliciously ambiguous), but after you’ve left the theatre, as you begin to fathom exactly what was in the carton Philomela presented to Tereus. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold.
The cast here are all strong. Christian Byers’ Tereus is talkative and often blunders into making outrageous statements from which there is seemingly no way out, and is desperate to make amends with his wife in her grief. Lucinda Howes is strong-willed as Procne, Tereus’ wife, and is very much in charge of the revenge plot. Victoria Zerbst’s Philomela is barely eighteen and still finishing high-school, and her plight – though unseen and only hinted at – is nonetheless affecting and harrowing, considering the apparent ages of each of the three characters. The direction is tight and assured, though the first scene does feel perhaps ten minutes too long. The lighting is simple and effective, and the sound design in the scene changes is at times truly terrifying.
For a group of young theatre-makers at the beginning of (hopefully) long and fruitful careers, Procne & Tereus is an impressive debut production. Strong and robust, its examination of the visceral power of violence is brave and unflinching, and it announces Montague Basement’s commitment to making works that “don’t compromise [and] participate in a bigger conversation” with a bold flourish.

Theatre playlist: 56. Search and Destroy, The Stooges

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