'People think it's all about violence, says James Macdonald. 'It's not. As in all classical drama, the violence happens off-stage. Thyestes (starring Sebastian Harcombe, right) is actually the inspiration for Elizabethan revenge drama like The Revenger's Tragedy or Hamlet. Titus Andronicus uses the same plot. They knew nothing of Greek drama. Without Seneca, Elizabethan tragedy would not have existed.'

Opening tonight at the Royal Court Upstairs, Macdonald's production has a new translation by Caryl Churchill.

'She's brilliant at writing about what's going on in our society at any given moment. She does so with an economy and wit and poetry which is very rare. We went to see Mnouchkine's Les Atrides, and Caryl went away and tracked down Seneca's Latin version. Oddly enough, we both did Latin at 'A' level.

'For a while now, she has begun to move into more difficult, darker areas, and this play reflects her concerns. It's about people living in extreme emotional states and under tyranny. Seneca led this fantastically compromised life: he was the leading Stoic philosopher of his day, yet he was also chief political advisor to a lunatic.

'It deals with ideas of good and evil, although evil is not a word she would use. There's an acute gallows humour to the play. In such emotionally forlorn landscape, humour is part of the territory.'

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