Currently running at the Almeida as part of its “Greeks” season is a riveting production (in Anne Carson’s version) of the disturbing, tirelessly fascinating Euripides tragedy Bakkhai — as the company prefers to transliterate the title.
I agree to an extent with Dominic Cavendish’s assessment that the chorus of female bacchantes is a major weak spot as staged by James Macdonald in this production. As Cavendish puts it: “Even with the ten Bacchants on all fours, faces animal-painted, banging staves, the effect is more WI tea-party than wild tribal gathering.”
I’d also add that the humdrum music they are given by Orlando Gough — spiced with raw Balkan harmonies but never actually ecstatic — bears much of the responsibility for this weakness. That, and a shade too much ensemble gesticulation with kitschy echoes of the Macbeth witches (expanded from three to ten).
But there’s plenty of wonderful work here which more than compensates — including a staging of the early encounter between the blind seer Tiresias and old Cadmus that has a dash of Samuel Beckett’s humor. The big name draw has been the casting of Ben Whishaw as Dionysus — and he’s good at conveying the god’s savage contradictions and self-doubting.
The famous Apollonian-Dionysian dualism appears here broken down and recombined within in myriad ways: Dionysus is boyish, epicene, a smooth talker, a trickster, but, most memorably, the god does a volte-face after he’s gotten his revenge and, during the scene with Agave and Cadmus, viciously rubs it in. This is the nightmare that atheists turn to over and over to warn of the hideousness of our projections of divine entities.
So, too, Bertie Carvel undergoes a criss-cross, chiasmos transformation from stern, disciplined, “logocentric” ruler to a creature overcome by fatal curiosity — and the dissolution of borders. He trades his alpha male suit to put on campy drag, which is followed by his turn as Agave. This was far more than camp: I could have sworn I heard a kind of collective gasp in the final scene as Agave comes down from her high, in the moment when recognition dawns — their moment of catharsis.
Daniel Mendelssohn reminds us that with Bakkhai Euripides “won a posthumous first prize at that year’s [405 BCE] annual dramatic competition, an accolade that had so often eluded the irreligious and daringly experimental playwright during his lifetime.”
Of course the achievement of Euripides in Bakkhai continues to be rediscovered by each new age, reassessed according to its needs and … blinders. The enthusiasts of the 1960s found Dionysus a figure of liberation, of sexual and creative joy in the face of repression. Does our current reckoning with the consequences of religious mania make Pentheus a more sympathetic character? And what about Cadmus, grandfather to the god and worshiper, who is forced to endure seeing his descendants suffer this fate?
The final chorus of the tragedy:
The gods appear in many forms,
carrying with them unwelcome things.
What people thought would happen never did.
What they did not expect, the gods made happen.
That’s what this story has revealed.