Review: Bacchae, Bloomsbury Theatre

UCL’s Classical Drama Society takes on Euripides’s final tragedy in this brilliant and lurid rendering of Bacchae. The Bloomsbury Theatre, with its intense low lighting and hanging drapes cloaking the stage, is transformed into a claustrophobic and ominous space- perfect for this tragic and stark piece. It is the story of toxic masculinity and redemption, displaying the Greek gods in their only too human nature and appetites and as those not to be messed with.

We open with Dionysus (Pavlos Christodoulou), son of Zeus, making a return to his birthplace of Thebes. Adopting a human form, he has returned to clear his mother’s tarnished name and punish the city for its impiety towards him. He is flocked with an infernal harem of women, known as the Bacchae, who are maniacally devoted to him and venerate him through chants and ethereal dancing. His cousin, Pentheus, King of Thebes, is disbelieving of Dionysus’s godliness and attempts to oppose and block him and his entourage, putting his own fate in untold jeopardy, the tension of this stand-off pervading the entire play.

Director Emily Louizou has realised a disciplined and greatly effective tragic production. What is perhaps most effective is the use of sound and music, which seems to incessantly bubble underneath the on-stage action and dialogue, though occasionally distorting the character’s lines, making them inaudible. There is a balance between the use of backing track and live music, several musicians occupying the peripheries of the stage, though occasionally being thrown into the action. Low rumbling drums, mandolin harmonics and whaling dissonant flute compound and accompany the tension, falling together perfectly with the play’s foreboding tone.

None of this tension would be possible, of course, without the convincing strength of the play’s cast. Several performances stand out, not least of which includes Christodoulou’s portrayal of Dionysus, whose calm and often charming exterior persona conceals a deeply authoritative and dangerous air. With his burly physicality, seen also in his recent Bloomsbury performance as King Henry IV in the Shakespearean history, he dominates the stage and is perfect for the role. I’m yet to see an uninspiring performance from Adam Woolley, whose depiction of the ill-fatedly arrogant and confident Pentheus further marks him as one of the strongest performers on the UCL drama scene. Charlotte Holtum gives a deeply chilling performance as Agave, the mania and starkness of her character leaving its mark. Whilst her possessed and shrill singing occasionally peaked into hyperbole, it is set against her deeply pained mourning towards the end of the play, this being the motor for the critical point of the play’s tragedy. The whole cast should be commended for its strong performances.

Though Dionysus is the protagonist, our attention is unmistakably drawn to the Bacchae, and with good cause. The well-rehearsed choreography and hellish chants, all executed in perfect unison, make for a mesmeric group performance. Each member seems to fully commit to their unruly character, flailing their arms alarmingly in devilish reverence of their merciless leader. They are something of a cult, creeping from the wings and stalking the other characters like prey. It’s really chilling stuff that will send a tingle down your spine.

This is a sterling production with a pertinence that stands the test of time. In spite of the millennia which separate us from the play’s setting, your hairs will still stand on end, the play bearing a raw and gruesome character that both repels and entices in equal measure.

Bacchae is playing at Bloomsbury Theatre until 12 February. For more information and tickets, see the Bloomsbury Theatre website.