Friday, September 21, 2007

The Bacchae

I studied this play at university – twice, I think, once in Trauma and Film 1 and once in Classical Life and Thought 2 . I’ve never seen it on stage until last night, at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

I booked partly because I’ve always wanted to see a production, and partly because Alan Cumming was playing Dionysus. I hardly read anything about it before going, and as it happened was feeling distinctly under par yesterday so was dreading a worthy Greek revival: however this production was electrifying, and deliciously far from ‘worthy’. Almost 2 hours without interval but one hardly notices: this is a great fresh translation by David Greig and a wonderful production by John Tiffany for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Cumming is superb in the role of the rejected god come back to wreak revenge on his mother’s earthly family. Seductive, camp, and comic, but quite excessive in his cruel revenge. But I suppose all Greek gods were dangerous – mythology is full of their violent acts visited randomly on friend and foe alike. As the god Cumming makes a series of fabulous, jaw-dropping entrances throughout – lowered by his ankles to the stage at the start (mooning the audience); though a blast of wall-to-wall fire in the middle (I was in row M and felt the heat); and, finally, – disembodied voice amplified – behind a massive bank of blinding lights at the end. His scenes with the uptight Pentheus are very witty and loaded with horrific irony, which Cumming takes to the max.

Cumming’s foil Tony Curran makes Pentheus’s journey from repressed macho moralist to cringingly awful drag artiste compelling.

Paola Dionisiotti as his mother Agave and Ewan Hooper as grandfather Cadmus are excellent too. They really evoke the horror and poignancy of the tragedy. I was rather dreading Pentheus’s head coming on stage at this point and this one is a pretty close portrait of Tony Curran. The denouement is all the more grisly for Agave and Cadmus being absolutely smothered in blood and gore.

The chorus of Bacchae are played by black women in magnificent red feathered dresses and big disco diva hair. Their words are sung, in mostly Gospel/R&B stylee and they are pretty fabulous – I really looked forward to their next turn. It could easily have been a disastrous choice to use Black actresses in this way; given the theme of the play it could have been interpreted as racist. However, they almost emphasize this possibility – one chorus member mimics a hip-hop artist at one point; another gives the reported words of Agave a broad West Indian accent. The final effect is of flirting with taboos; going too far – which is where Dionysus lives.

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