First Oresteia and now Bakkhai have been transformed by The Almeida from seemingly, old, boring, Greek tragedies into cutting-edge and dynamic modern theatre. This young critic must be blamed for clearly having a juvenile view of Greek tragedy as terribly boring, indeed when I first found out the Oresteia was nearly four hours long I almost had a fit. Although, like the Oresteia, this new production of Bakkhai written by Anne Carson and directed by James Macdonald, has revealed to me that Greek tragedy is far from boring and is, in fact, right on the peak of relevance today.
Bakkhai is one of Euripides’ works, produced posthumously along with ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’. Different from his contemporaries, Euripides was critical, sceptical and individualistic, wanting to free Greek thought from religious subservience.
Dionysus, Greek God of wine, revelry and theatre, comes to Thebes determined to convert its stubborn King Pentheus from non-believer to full on wine guzzling, lady loving reveller. This is met with total contempt and jail time as indeed the Bacchic followers (all women) have. Riling up this seemingly mischievous God, won’t end up with comic misfortune as handed out by ‘The Mask’, Jim Carrey’s comic performance based on this petulant God. This God has a far more violent and retributive response to non-believers. The message: always question your gods, never relinquish the ability to reason and think for yourself and challenge unjust rule. Do not let a belief system legitimise outrageous, unjust and immoral acts. And when it comes to gender in this play: hysterical women are a threat to men and power.
Ben Whishaw, as the God come to Thebes in man-form, is sensational in his characterisation, playing the light and cheerful god in his jest, but also in his fury. He supports this with roles as Tiresias – the blind hermaphrodite seer – and a messenger. The other big name here is Bertie Carvel who plays King Pentheus with a serious and strong performance, who rules his people with a rod of iron. He also plays his own mother, Agave. The transformation when guided by Dionysus to disguise as a woman is seamless and performed with convincing naturalism. This is an actor adept at playing both genders, seen before as Miss Trunchbull, but this was no Roald Dahl childish terror. This was sheer acting, when as Agave, he comes to terms with the brutal actions Dionysus lead her to carry out. Finally we must mention one other performance; Kevin Harvey playing a number of roles, including Cadmus, all completely differently and unique to the point where one might think it was three different actors. Three different actors it was not, and we congratulate Kevin, for his superb character performances.
The chorus narration was a mix of speech but mainly song. And from their very first lines, completely in-sync, I knew we were going to be in for a special choral performance. One current member of ‘The Shout’ – the renowned vocal group – was among a group of ten female actors and singers – The Bacchae – followers of God Dionysus – commentating on the action throughout, interspersing the main scenes. This was tuned, synced and performed to perfection and added a dynamism to this piece never seen before by the Ginger Wig.
Peter Mumford’s lighting was literally electrifying, blending in perfectly with the mood of the piece, and then suddenly jumping out at you when godly passions were raging. A huge drum-like light, hung high on the ceiling, moved remotely above the stage creating different angels and lights for the scenes. The opening electric sparks and the scene of Dionysus’ damnation of Agave and her father, Cadmus, were highlights for the lighting, and the back wall lightings added beautifully to the whole composition.
The design as well was spot on, with a lovely mix between contemporary with rags and robes. Subtle touches including the makeup on Bertie’s face while marching about in a suit added hugely to the production.
You don’t get second rate at the Almeida. This was truly a top production. Hats off for the acting and singing, lighting, directing and adaptation. And indeed of course to Euripides himself for taking us away from the belief in Gods as above us. Relevant today as ever “Gods should not resemble men in their anger!” – men should not be angry full stop. Thank you Almeida for making Greek tragedy cool again!
Highlight of the Show – Dionysus’ entrance in bull form under the electric lights to damn Cadmus and Agave to a life time of exile and pain.