BakkhaiPosted by Laurence Green
Euripides's greek classic, Bakkhai, comes to the Almeida Theatre. Laurence Green reports.
A play written almost 2,500 years ago still manages to be genuinely disturbing as James Macdonald's strange, startling and occasionally frustrating production of Euripides's Bakkhai (Almeida Theatre, London) proves. This is the second in the Almeida's summer trilogy of classic Greek plays.
The uptight King Pentheus has banned the wild rituals of the god Dionysus. Then a stranger arrives in the Thebes in the mortal form of Dionysus to persuade him to change his mind. At first this god of wine, theatre, dance and song charms the women in every sense and they take to the hills where they dance and cavort, leaving the men behind. But initially feline and flirtatious, Dionysus reveals a more brutal side when he gives vent to his frustrations, brought about by his not being recognised as a god. Pentheus is alarmed by this development and determined to reassert his authority, but Dionysus is ready to turn the tables on him.
Anne Carson's new translation captures the original's concern with the ideas of passion and intellect and wildness and restraint, as well as the confrontation of violently opposed forces, but it also has a raw immediacy. It is at its best when it appears most primitive, exposing the passionate frenzy at the heart of Euripides's drama. I was less impressed, however, with some of the modern touches such as having Penteus initially smartly suited and every inch the politician, conveyed by his measured hand gestures and display of arrogance, only to emerge after being tricked by Dionysus as a woman in a Chanel jacket and court shoes, finally transforming himself into his own mother in a negligee smeared with dirt to the elbow.
The chorus consists of ten women, wreathed in ivy, representing Dionysus's ecstatic followers, who punctuate the action with otherworldly odes. Orlando Gough's acapella music combines persuasive urgency with some rather jittery incantations and the whole is overseen by a magnetic central performance by Ben Whishaw as the impish, mercurial Dionysus, with black hair streaming over his shoulders and occasionally flexing those shoulders as if he is still getting used to wearing this particular skin. He is well supported by Bertie Correl as the stiffly rational Pentheus, whose decision to ban the decadent worship of Dionysus acts as a springboard for the tragedy that ensues, while Kevin Harvey convinces as Pentheus's elderly grandfather Kadmus.
Although not as powerful as the previous play Orestia, this is still a production which remains imprinted on the mind.
Runs at the Almeida Theatre, London, until Saturday 19 September 2015.
Box office: 020 7359 4404
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