Ché Walker’s new play The Lightning Child is a contemporary response to Euripides’s The Bacchae. You’ve got to be brave to essentially translate an Ancient Greek play into everyday language, but Walker makes expletives poetic, and by interspersing Euripides’ tale with modern tragedies of Dionysian excess, identifies affinities with this nearly 2,500 year-old story.
Euripides’s play isn’t interfered with much: Pentheus objects to the three days of Dionysian worship which involves men dressing effeminately and the women worshipping through song, dance and drinking wine. Dionysus allows himself to be arrested under the guise of a priest, and dresses Pentheus as a woman so that he can spy on the women. As punishment for his blasphemy, Pentheus is dismembered by the women, who includes his mother, Agave, who is turned into a snake. All of this is handled theatrically in a way which would make Dionysus proud, in particular the blinding flash of sequins as the men are transformed in glorious drag. In the midst of this, Walker tells us the stories of two junkies, a violinist and her roommate, astronauts and Billie Holiday. It’s an eclectic mix of personalities with multi-ethnic influences upon the musical elements, typical of Walker’s Camden-esque voice. The only thing is Walker does let these characters run away with themselves at times and certain scenes can drag, the balance of song, dance and speech doesn’t always feel right.
This is Arthur Darvill’s fourth collaboration with Walker on the music, and I marvel at how he manages to adapt to Walker’s unique universes. The primal percussion harking back to primitive rituals and instincts, against the hollow sound of Walker’s Greek chorus, may sound a little messy, but undoubtedly the riffs scream of musical liberation. The chorus of Maenads all seem to be channelling Tyra Banks for fierceness, striking provocative poses that own the stage. There isn’t much in the acting that can be faulted; Clifford Samuel has a hilarious handle of rhetoric and a relatable voice as Pentheus, Tommy Coleman is sultry and soulful as Dionysus, and Jonathan Chambers has superb comic timing as Ladyboy Herald, connecting with the groundlings on every level. In their subplots, Philip Cumbus and Harry Hepple are an endearing double act who deserve their scenes to be fleshed out into a play all of their own, and the pretentious smiles that flick between Jess Murphy and Clemmie Sveass make your skin crawl.
The Lightning Child brilliantly utilises tragic conventions in the Globe Theatre space. Ladyboy Herald descends from the ceiling in a steel cage looking like an exotic Christmas decoration, and guides the audience backwards and forwards in time, fully aware of the absurdity of it all. Walker has a gift for making the audience laugh, but what’s brilliant about this play is its ability to laugh at itself. The Lightning Child does what Greek theatre never could and questions the terrible divine intervention of the Gods, and moreover resigns itself to the idea that shit just happens. The gore is shocking and tumultuous, but critiqued by its own storytellers for being too gratuitous (although being able to portray all this violence which wasn’t done back then is satisfying in a morbid way and pretty convincing in places). It’s an epic production full of surprises for director Matthew Dunster, but having seen his version of Walker’s last play at the Globe, The Frontline, which was equally impressive, it’s no surprise he’s pulled it off especially in this classically accommodating space.
The Lightning Child plays at The Globe Theatre until 12 October. For tickets and more information
see the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Photo by Simon Kane.