Procne and Tereus – Montague Basement at the Sydney Fringe (Theatre Review)

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Procne and Tereus

Montague Basement at the Sydney Fringe festival to Saturday 20 September

You can buy your tickets here 

How do you tell this story? is the central question at the heart of Montague Basement’s production of Procne and Tereus as written and directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari after the Greek myth of Procne, Tereus and Philomela – a story that bares shocking present day relevance as Sydney-siders are experiencing the fear of a horrific violence that has threatened our usually very peaceful lives. In his notes to the production, Lusty-Cavallari talks about using theatre to examine violence, dividing the production into four separate scenes, that each depict their own brand of aggression, pent-up and explosive that flows through us whether we act on it or not. Violence is not always a blood bath; in some ways the bloodbath of the horror film, music or book is a relief, taking us to the place of action and letting us step out of the threat that stays with most of us constantly. The power to avoid violence always lies with our neighbor – it is their choice whether they attack or show restraint. We live with the threat of the other just as we live with our love for and from them. Lusty-Cavallari wants us to think about the way we see violence, particularly in our own world, as always a thing distanced from ourselves. Art in this way, he might suggest, is used to create separation from something that seethes with a permanent, restless knowing in our lives. However, as he carefully notes, when violence does happen to us, it occurs as a refutation of all we imagined it would be. In a strange way, we live with a constant fear of violence, a desire to control its possible outcomes and rarely, the appalling confrontation that obliterates a certain innocence in which the previous two states are contained. The lessons of Procne and Tereus are not only about the impact of violence and what it can unleash, but also about the innocence that keeps that violence at bay.

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These are lofty, enormous questions contained in Greek mythology that speak to us as loudly on the Sydney streets today as they did in the 9th century BC when the ancient Greeks found their voice and began to write about the way we are at perpetual war with each other. Each human creature is an ocean, a universe, as distinct and different from the one that proceeded it while also being a completely reliable carbon copy. The Montague Basement theatre collective have put on a version of the myth that spans four key moments in a contemporary setting, that lead to the transformative events surrounding the horrific climax of the story of Procne and Tereus, using the theatre space as an examination of the various ways violence captures us. It’s enormously refreshing and very gratifying to see a young theatre company unafraid of lofty ideals and grand ambitions that extend theatre way beyond the “must entertain” rubric that has enslaved through the “compete with film and television” dictum of the last thirty years or so. The inquiring mind needs “entertaining” as much as the passive, and the reason I am not at the football or home watching my television is because I don’t want to be there. Procne and Tereus assumes intellect and therefore compliments its audience with a complex script, written with a disarmingly light sleight-of-hand-acumen, dipping into a fulsome and spawning well to ask questions that couldn’t possibly be more current.

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Procne and Tereus sees three young performers tackling difficult roles in ancient Greek mythology in a contemporary setting, fusing those characters with an examination of our lives today. These are tough roles contained in a very subtly drawn script that evokes many conflicting questions about what violence is, and who we are and become in the face of it. Christian Byers is particularly interesting as a very violent man, physically smaller than the women he dominates, and yet able to enforce his terror upon them in with an eerie darkness that stems from entitlement. He’s a very beautiful young man, which makes the characters creepy darkness all the more unsettling, as it sits in direct opposition to a societal response to his physical features. Understandably, he grappled with the character, but the slightly flawed performance never takes the audience out of the horror of who he projects, rather adding to an already addled energy, further exacerbated by the fact that his character was quite funny at times. It’s an unsettling achievement to see him in this production, and no doubt precisely the idea Lusty-Cavallari wanted to project.  Lucinda Howes is his opposite in Procne, the solid girlfriend, the dutiful daughter, the loving sister, the devotedly pregnant woman who is capable of the most mighty of horrors in the face of the most mighty of crimes. She’s a wonderful Procne, frighteningly perverse, particularly when events sweep over her and she goes about her terrible, tragic task with the cool detachment of the profoundly wounded. Howes brings a war into a bedroom through her performance and is an excellent counter point for the strange darkness of Byers’ Tereus. The pair forge their battle over the innocent Philomela, played by Victoria Zerbst who shows us that innocence today is closely aligned with obedience (perhaps it has always been?) throbbing with promise and the antidote to ruin. Her speechless scene with Howes is very well executed, bringing to vivid life the point Lusty-Cavallari makes in his notes about the obliteration of a certain kind of knowledge in the face of the truth of violence.

A brief word about Eunice Huang’s lighting here, and also about the wonderful use of music and sound in the production to act as segue between disparate moments in an overarching plot. Light and sound act as their own parts of the narrative, and on the night that I saw the show, were perfectly timed by Chrysanti Chandra. In a lo-fi production with a minimal set, it made for a strong bonding agent, not only between scenes but between ideas, and the expanding notion of an idea put in place by the previous scene adding strength to a good production.

When theatre is courageously engaged in a timeless dialogue about what it is to be human, any flaws a production may have melt in the face of an inspiring ambition that allows us to confront our own vision of the world and our place in it. Montague Basement’s Procne and Tereus is precisely this;  courage and ambition merging to hold a reflective surface up to the collection of history and current events that shape each of us. This is theatre that will leave you talking long and late into the night, and stay with you for many weeks to come.