Pros: The haunting, atmospheric presence of the all-female chorus is used to great effect.
Cons: The intensity is built well, yet one or two crucial moments don’t pay off as they should.
Following on from Robert Icke’s Oresteia, Euripides’ brutal classic Bakkhai is the second play in the Almeida’s Greek season. This new adaptation by Canadian poet Anne Carson is lively and witty, drawing on the disconcerting black humour of the tale, and the performances are strong. James Macdonald’s production is at times atmospheric, fraught with tension and utterly captivating.
The play is centred on the god of drama, wine and ecstatic song and dance, Dionysos, who has come to Thebes to force the citizens to worship him as they should. When they resist, Dionysos demonstrates his power by sending the women of Thebes mad. They run amok up in the hills, hunting wild animals and celebrating the god. This infuriates the King of Thebes, Pentheus, whose own mother Agave is one of those partying in the hills. So Pentheus decides to dress up as a woman himself, in order to spy on the women in secret.
The mess of contradictions that make up Dionysos’ character is one of the most compelling things about this play and it is captured brilliantly by Ben Whishaw. He appears in many guises, as man and god, effeminate and masculine, nonchalant and enraged. He is ambiguous, unpredictable and above all, fascinating.
Like Dionysos himself, this production is full of contradictions. It is neither modern nor ancient, yet it is not timeless either. The costumes contain elements of both time periods, from the sleek business suit of Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus and the casual jeans of Whishaw’s Dionysos, to the abundance of ancient gowns and the leafy wreaths the chorus adorn their heads with. These polarities create an interesting dynamic, and highlight the play’s relevance in both the past and present.
This can also be seen within the excellent ten-strong, all-female chorus that accompanies the male performances. Their dominating presence challenges the authority of the male characters and the patriarchal norms that preceded Dionysos’ takeover. Even their singing ranges from beautiful, angelic harmonies to guttural yelps and moans and demonic incantations. The beautiful vocal soundscape is captivating and creates the disconcerting tension that a production of Bakkhai needs. The chorus is made up of women who differ widely in appearance and vocal style, thus representing the whole of womankind as the Bakkhai.
Traditionally, three men play all the speaking roles in a Greek tragedy. This production has stuck to the rulebook with Bertie Carvel and Kevin Harvey accompanying Ben Whishaw as the main cast. Carvel’s Pentheus is doubled with Agave, his mother, who mistakes him for a mountain lion and tears him limb from limb. This is an apt and moving touch, given the questions about gender that Bakkhai raises. However, the scene in which Agave comes down from her insanity and realises what she has done could have been more poignant.
James Macdonald’s production of Bakkhai is thoughtful, intelligent and challenging, with many layers. Visually and aurally, it is tremendous; the performances are outstanding and the text is striking, but it is the questions that Bakkhai puts to its audience that will be occupying you for days. As well as the exploration of gender through the male characters’ experiments with stereotypically feminine attitudes and roles, Bakkhai asks age-old questions about the nature of theatre and the distinction between illusion and reality. There is a sense of horror that is hard to shake off: a feeling that you, like Pentheus, have been tricked (but aren’t we always ‘tricked’ when we go to the theatre?). This is a play that demands your full and undivided attention. Let me tell you, the rewards are worth it.
Adaptation: Anne Carson
Director: James Macdonald
Designer: Antony McDonald
Composer: Orlando Gough
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking Link: http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/bakkhai/23-jul-2015-19-sep-2015
Booking Until: 19 September 2015