Friday 14 August 2015


Almeida Theatre

8th August 2015

Hot on the heels of the announcement of a transfer for the acclaimed Oresteia (playing at the Trafalgar Studios from 22nd August), Bakkhai is the second production featured in the Almeida Greek season, including, amongst others, a star-studded reading of The Iliad, and artistic director Rupert Goold’s production of Medea. Aiming to ‘revive and redefine’ the Ancient Greek canon is a challenging undertaking, and in the case of James Macdonald’s production of Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ tragedy this objective is only partly accomplished.

The play presents a clashing of binaries in the confrontation between the cool and conservative King of Thebes, Pentheus (Bertie Carvel) and his cousin Dionysos (Ben Whishaw), God of wine, drama and ecstasy. Dionysos leads a cult of crazed women, the titular Bakkhai (represented by the all-female chorus), the liberal madness inflicted upon them by the god in revenge for Thebes’ resistance to his worship. Yet Dionysos also embodies a multitude of binaries, of which most apparent is his personification of both male and female - Whishaw’s androgynous appearance enhances this – his sexual fluidity creates a magnetism that Pentheus is simultaneously repelled by and drawn to, his uncontrollable desire to witness the Bakkhai eventually leading to his tragic demise.

Dionysos’s contradictory nature and manipulation comes the fore during his final appearance in his bull-like guise, offering a warning to the population of Thebes and establishing his dangerous and powerful worship. The play effectively presents the tensions between chaos and order, madness and sanity, liberty and conservatism and the misfortune that can occur when the balance is uneven.

All the classic Greek elements are present. Amidst the tragedy exists the typical exploration of mother/son dynamics – Carvel comes into his own when portraying the blood thirsty Agave, mother and unsuspecting killer of Pentheus. The main cast of three all impress in multiple roles and Kevin Harvey as the grieving Kadmos ensures he is not overshadowed by the starrier Whishaw and Carvel. Antony McDonald’s simplistic, mud-banked design and the massive sliding light fixture, reminiscent of the sun, is evocative of Greek amphitheatres, allowing the performances to shine in classic story-telling fashion.

However, one traditional aspect of Greek tragedy here seems a little contrived. While sonically beautiful and flawlessly executed, the extended, often repetitive use of the harmonising chants of the chorus occasionally bogs down the text, distancing the audience from the central characters and thus diminishing any sense of empathy or tragic catharsis that could be produced. As critic Matt Trueman has stated, Greek tragedies should force the audience to ‘fucking feel something’, and unfortunately Macdonald misses the mark on that front.

Bakkhai is enjoyable and the performances are worth the visit alone, but overall it seems a production to be admired and clinically analysed rather than exemplifying gutsy provocation or the inducement of emotion that one expects from tragedy.

Bakkhai plays at the Almeida Theatre until 19th September 2015

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