Almeida Theatre has devoted its current season to an explosive collection of Greek plays and talks, a re-invented examination of what essentially gave birth to theatre and why we are still fascinated and appalled by the stories that have survived thousands of years. Exploring the Greek roots and pulse of the classic texts as well as relating the dramas to the world of today, the Almeida offers a season of thought-provoking, fascinating and bold work. Anne Carson’s version of Bakkhai is no different. It rips the text up by the roots and transforms Euripides’ last tragedy into a night of ecstasy and enchantment that sends the blood rushing.
Dionysus, the God of ecstasy and wine, is infuriated by the Greeks’ refusal to honour him as a god. To punish the people of Thebes – his birthplace – he sends the women into madness as they run amok in the mountains and worship the god as his Bakkhai (women of Bakkhos). The men of Thebes are left to watch their women being sexually liberated and ecstatic, and Pentheus – the young king of Thebes – therefore decides to put an end to the madness and control the women once more. He refuses to honour Dionysus, and as revenge the god appears disguised and gradually leads the city into ruin.
When staging one of the Greek plays you have to make a choice whether to honour the tradition of Ancient Greek drama with a strong choral presence, songs and movement, or discard the tradition and find the relevance to the world of today, stripping the play off any non-naturalistic movements which often means cutting the chorus entirely. It is a difficult choice to make as both offer difficulties with a modern audience – the first honours the flavour and energy of the text and tradition but can frustrate an audience desperately seeking a modern relevance. The second explores the drama in a world and society we can closely relate to but robs the text of its natural life-blood and loses the sense of being “Greek”. So which one is it?
James Macdonald’s Bakkhai manages to find an exhilarating place in-between. The setting is modern and the text naturally raises questions so relevant for us today. What is the balance between control and ecstasy? Are we supposed to live life in order – the Apollonian world view – restricting ourselves to responsibility and morals? Or should we encourage release, ecstasy and freedom of action – the Dionysian world view? In reality we are in constant battle between the two. Bakkhai offers the reality of both movements, asks us to deny nothing, but then shows us the consequences of our actions.
However the form in which the play exists has a strong Greek pulse with a focus on the female chorus, the Bakkhai women. Honouring the tradition the play is infused with song and dance, beautifully composed by Orlando Gough. The sound of the women’s chanting and song is eerie, at times brutal, and it resonates through to the bones. Coupled with an extraordinary performance from Ben Whishaw as Dionysus it is a play that awakes you with explosiveness and charm then almost pushes you into a trance with the women.
Whishaw’s portrayal of the god is nothing but spellbinding. Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus is a complete opposite in temperament but equally draws the audience in and his transformation towards the end of the play is incredible. And Kevin Harvey’s character doubling is so impressive you forget it’s the same actor. The cast is refreshingly ensemble driven and creates a sensation of a play that flows like an enchanted mixture, bathed in Peter Mumford’s disturbing but fantastic atmospheric light.
Bakkhai is a thought-provoking, brutal but elegant play raising questions about control and desire, illusion and reality, and sanity and madness. It has a delicious dark twist of humour as well as a depth which both disturbs and shocks. James Macdonald’s version is slick, fiery and intense. If you love the Greeks and the mysterious, extreme expression of their world, this is a play that will keep you at the edge of your seat. For me, this is how you do the Greeks.
Bakkhai is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 19 September. For tickets and more information see the Almedia Theatre website. Photo by Marc Brenner.