Almeida Theatre, London
For the second production in Rupert Goold’s exciting Greek trilogy, hubris once again becomes a leading player, this time in the guise of Pentheus, the son of Agave whose curiosity and inflexibility – like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (with whom incidentally, one can see several parallels) – leads him to a terrible death.
If Oresteia asked what is the price of justice, Bakkhai sees the gods exacting an awesome revenge for disobedience – the disobedience in this case being refusal to bend the knee to the new religion of Dionysos, played by Ben Whishaw with a mixture of androgyny, mischief and Christ-like charisma.
But like Robert Icke’s Oresteia, the magic of James Macdonald’s vision in Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ final work lies in the atmosphere it creates of our contemporary world yet of a mythic timelessness.
Macdonald has taken the all-female Chorus, the narrators of the action, and under Orlando Gough’s direction, fashioned them into a throbbing Bulgarian and east Mediterranean acapella ensemble. Garlanded in green leaves, faces besmirched in white and ochre face-paint and stamping the stage with wooden staffs, they make an impressive if disciplined bunch – not exactly the epitomes of bacchanalian excess so frequently suggested until the climax when Pentheus’s own mother delivers the killer blow, offstage, but highlighting the `double vision’ of Dionysian ecstasy.
The savagery marks one of the production’s high points. The other, apart from the originality of Gough’s settings, is Whishaw’s long-haired, robed Dionysos confronting Bertie Carvel’s lounge-suited Pentheus – the one sexually, mischievously dual, the other contained, macho, suppressed. Carvel’s transformation into a female as the over-curious and fated Pentheus, anxious to spy on women indulging in Dionysian rituals, is an astonishing one echoing his Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.
Behind Euripides’ exploration of these human polarities, there is an overwhelming sense of the eternal suspicion of female sexuality that runs throughout the tragedies. But Macdonald spurns any literal emphasis producing instead a wry modernity until, at the last, with Kevin Harvey’s intensely moving coda as Agave’s father, Kadmos, he restores to this Bakkhai true horror and a cathartic rejection of the kind of violence religion or sensual abandonment can inflict.
All very timely.
Bakkhai runs at the Almeida to Sept 19, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, Aug 2015