A new version by Anne Carson
Directed by James Macdonald
Designed by Anthony McDonald
Composition by Orlando Gough
Almeida Theatre, London
Wednesday 2nd September 2015
Our third celebrity lead actor in two days: Cumberbatch, Suchet and now Whishaw.
Ben Whishaw as Dionysus with the Bakkhai
Greek drama seems to be everywhere. I can’t recall so many productions vying for attention at the same time: The Old Vic, The Globe, The National, the RSC and now a whole Greek season at the Almeida. I had rather a surfeit of Oedipus Tyrannus in my early days, which put me off that Greek relentless inevitability. It also brings up the debate people love to have on titles: Oedipus Rex? Why go into Latin? Oedipus Tyrannus? But it’s a translation. Oedipus the King? Oedipus the Tyrant? What’s wrong with English word order? King Oedipus? Doesn’t sound Greek enough.
The Bacchae was perfectly acceptable spelling when we saw Alan Cumming in it at The Lyric in 2008, but now it’s The Bakkhai with similar spellings in the programme – Bakkhos not Bacchus. The Bakkhai does have an Orc-ish look to it, suiting the theme of punishment, dismemberment and horror. I can’t justify the double k though, except to make it look alien. You need two ‘c’ s to stop Bacchae sounding like followers of the composer (Bachae), but one k does the job with a following consonant, h. If you can justify double k, please comment.
A tangled route took us to our ‘third star of screen’ play in two days. We had booked to see the Cumberbatch Hamlet on the Tuesday and Stephen Marchant in The Mentalists on Wednesday. We decided to fill in Wednesday afternoon with Suchet in The Importance of Being Earnest. After dreadful reviews, the Mentalists got cancelled early, leaving us with a non-refundable and no longer necessary hotel (finished at 5 pm) and a non-refundable train on Thursday. So The Bakkhai was a reserve to fill Wednesday evening, and given Ben Whishaw’s status, we were very lucky to get not only tickets, but great seats. The Almeida is a relied, such a great space after the draughty caverns of the Barbican and the cramped and crumbling Vaudeville Theatre.
First off, we barely recognized the new Anne Carson version as the same play as the Alan Cummings one (by David Greig) of a few years ago. This was more savagely Greek, and the music by Orlando Gough, sung by the chorus, was integral. It may be a new rule that choruses come on in assorted modern street clothes carrying bags and change on stage. This was strict discipline Greek drama, following the ancient rule of only three speaking actors, taking all the speaking parts plus a chorus. It makes no more sense than all-male authentic practices Shakespeare, but given three such superb actors, the more you saw of them the better. The chorus was traditionally fifteen, but here ten.
Ben Whishaw, our third star actor, took instant control of the audience in his opening Dionysus monologue. He had us in the palm of his hand and twisted and manipulated. His long wig, like all the wigs, looked so totally real that it was a shock to see him without it as the Messenger … you couldn’t tell when he was Tiresias. Later as Dionysus with his beard and dress, he looked as if he’d just won the Eurovision song contest for Austria.
Dionysus and Pentheus
The chorus was hypnotic, with sung rhythm parts, sung ululation parts, some parts in unison so it sounded like the echo in Lil’ Louis’s “I Called You.” Absolutely magic, and they looked great especially after applying the savage make up later on. In fact, I wanted to close my eyes and just listen to them. A couple of critics said it became too much. Not for me … the action was an interruption to the music!
All three actors were stunning. Bertie Carvel plays Pentheus (suddenly in modern business suit) and Pentheus’s mother. To be honest, the plot, the beginning of the Dionysus cult, is neither long, nor easy. King Pentheus resists the cult of wild women worshippers (the chorus) and decides to put a stop to it. So we have temporal king v god, masculine versus feminine, city versus wild nature, authority versus freedom, the whole psychology 101 textbook.
Tiresias (Ben Whishaw) with the Old Man (Kevin Harvey)
Dionysus stages his revenge by persuading the prurient Pentheus that he can dress as a woman (hilariously in black twin set and pearls) and go and get a good peep at the goings on up there on the mountain among the women. Fear of the female is the base issue, and Dionysus knows the judgmental Pentheus won’t be able to resist a look at the mechanics of what these wild women get up to. The fear is justified. The Bakkhai, with his mother among them, are in full cult ecstasy when he arrives, mistake him for a lion and tear him limb from limb, in a ritual slaughter reserved for wild beasts. They kick his body parts round like a ball. Or rather they kick his balls around perhaps. Don’t worry … in Greek drama the savage bloody bits happen off stage and get reported. Pentheus’s mum arrives with his head on a stick, still thinking it’s a lion, and slowly realizes what she has done. Dionysus reappears in his horned god form.
The chorus at full belt- fantastic
As the programme notes the play is “alarmingly primitive and enormously sophisticated.’ Three powerful performances and the music of the chorus made it a strong experience, though the juxtaposition in the same day with The Importance of Being Earnest was almost a mental stretch too far for me.
Excellent. Long essays. Lots to read.
The woman next to me had a large plastic glass of wine which she gently swilled throughout adding the smell of wine to the god of wine. I find it unpleasant, and have recovering alcoholic friends who would find it distressing. As cinemas used to have smoking and non-smoking sections, couldn’t theatres have drinking and non-drinking sections? Or better still, for the sake of clean carpets, just no drinking inside at all? I find beer worse, and beer can involve multiple comings and goings too, but I can watch a play without the smell effects. Is it generational? The inability to sit for 105 minutes without alcohol?
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