Review: Bakkhai @ The Almeida Theatre ***

As part of its Greek Season, The Almeida Theatre is performing a modern version of The Bakkhai. Translated by Anne Carson and transposed into modern day, James Macdonald’s production has the hard job of following the critically acclaimed The Orestia. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as successful as its predecessor, despite a strong cast.

The plot’s a classic Greek Tragedy: gods, choruses, and a somewhat awkward mother/son relationship! But here’s the official synopsis, should you want a more formal summary:

Pentheus has banned the wild, ritualistic worship of the god Dionysos. A stranger arrives to persuade him to change his mind. Euripides’ electrifying tragedy is a struggle to the death between freedom and restraint, the rational and the irrational, man and god.

Whishaw makes for an utterly entrancing Dionysos, and the audience is as much under his spell as the Bakkhai women. An androgynous, omnisexual being, Whishaw brings equal elegance and menace to the role. Carvel portrays the pomp, smug posturing politician Pentheus and plays it in spades. Clad in a smart suit, he addresses the audience as if he were holding a conference, even using the same hand gestures as David Cameron. This first image contrasts starkly to the final image we get of him (or rather her) on stage.

Ben Whishaw as Dionysos, and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus.

One of the strengths of this production is that you can see just how much fun the cast are having with these roles. Whishaw practically revels in this role, having the Bakkhai women and audience in the palm of his hand. We go on a journey with the Bakkhai, sharing the initial giddy haze of ecstasy, a haze which clears towards the end, as we see his true form. Carvel plays off Whishaw’s energy: in some scenes, Dionysos is calm, composed, while Pentheus is a ball of frustrated energy. Sometimes sexual in nature! The scenes leading up to and after his character change are a joy to watch and play, I’m sure. Such is his excitement that he broke two of the props!

Ben Whishaw and Kevin Harvey.

The more tragic moments are mainly dealt to Carvel, and are so well timed: the gap between the audience’s realisation of what’s happened and his is horribly perfect. Both Carvel and Kevin Harvey’s’ shared grief is palpable and heartbreaking. But this is where we encounter the first issue I had with the play: the Greek Chorus.

The Bakkhai Women. In alphabetical order: Amiera Darwish, Aruhan Galieva, Eugenia Georgieva, Kaisa Hammarlund, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, and Belinda Sykes.

I’m familiar with choruses from Shakespeare: these are normally short, appearing infrequently and serving as exposition. I like those ones. This Greek Chorus is nothing like that. Long, drawn out and conveying information not vital to the plot, these appear after every scene, sandwiching the actual dialogue. Technically, it was very impressive: the harmonies were beautiful, perfectly in time and unison, and yet each actress brought a unique characterisation. But it got to the stage where after every scene finished, I would think: ‘here we go again’. They were overused and even, dare I say, misused at points. The final scenes form a pivotal moment of the play, and the focus should be on one character: Pentheus’ mother. It should be about her, her sadness, a moment of quiet in an otherwise frantic play. But yet again: the Bakkhai women sing, drowning out her grief and distracting us from the moment. Yes, they are sharing in her grief and acting as one, in unison. But it’s an individual moment: the gaze clears for this character, no longer under Dionysos’ spell, no longer one of them. So why should they sing? Surely it would end better if we have silence for the first time at the end. As they say, the rest is silence.

Verdict: an incredible cast and energy, undermined by an overuse of the chorus which deafens the quiet moments of the piece.

The Bakkhai is on at The Almeida Theatre until the 19th of September. For information on tickets, see the Almeida’s website.


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