Bakkhai by Euripides, in a new version by Anne Carson
Directed by James Macdonald
Starring Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel and Kevin Harvey
Almeida Theatre, London, until 19 September 2015
As the god of wine, theatre and sometimes going crazy, Dionysos would have had my vote in ancient Greece. His followers, the Bakkhai, are at the heart of James Macdonald’s production at the Almeida Theatre. These Bakkhai are an impressive ensemble of 10 women who sing, ululate, grunt, harmonise, gyrate and thump their staffs with menace. But the stars of the show are the men: Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel and Kevin Harvey who, in a gesture towards the Greek practice of using only three actors, share the main roles between them.
The production opens casually. Whishaw strolls onstage in jeans and a loose white T-shirt with a glorious blue sky in the background and the silhouette of a mountain behind him. His long hair flows down his back; he looks relaxed. He might be on holiday on a remote island in Greece in a parallel universe where there is no cash crisis. He is androgynous, slight of build and calmly confident that he is completely in control. He chats to the audience self-deprecatingly, wittily.
He explains he is Dionysos, god in human form. That’s hard to swallow in trendy Islington. Besides, the audience can see the rugged texture of the Almeida’s distinctive rough brick stage wall. We know Whishaw is not really Dionysos and he is not really suggesting we try a new religion that’s coming into Europe from Asia via Turkey. Anne Carson’s witty version of Euripides’ play has Dionysos helpfully suggest that the audience think of him as a daimon (explained in the programme with a quotation from an old-time classical scholar as an “occult power, a force that drives man [sic] forward where no agent can be named”). But Bakkhai is a play about the violence that happens when unbelievers clash with believers, when religious conviction and ecstasy slam into strong secular government. Dionysos is conning us. He’s not a daimon.
Whishaw’s god is softly spoken and beguiling. Later he returns pretending to be a priest of Dionysos and he’s wearing a full-length fawn-skin dress, which, matched with his light beard, makes him look as if he won last year’s Eurovision Song Contest. But the dress is plain, tunic-like and hints at iconic images of Jesus. The crackles of lightning that sizzle across the stage at critical moments also recall the story that Dionysos’ mother, Semele, was burned to a crisp because she insisted on looking on the face of a god.
Dionysos is on a hunt for Carvel’s uptight, besuited King Pentheus, dressed as if he’s come straight from the Palace of Westminster. Instantly tempted by Dionysos’ suggestion that he dress as a woman, this Pentheus asks “What kind of dress did you have in mind?” He reappears in a Margaret Thatcher suit, teamed with nice earrings. It’s not as glam as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair but everyone, except Pentheus, can see those heels are far too high for climbing Mount Cithaeron. Dionysos helps Pentheus put the fawn skin of the Bakkhai over the top of his suit, and then gets out the lipstick. Pentheus grabs the lippy and puts the finishing touches to his mouth as if he’s been dying to do this for years.
Watching all this are the Bakkhai. This ethnically and culturally diverse chorus arrives onstage looking as if they were at the WOMAD festival last month and hitched along the M4 before joining us in Islington. Assembled onstage, they begin to put on their uniform of fawn skin with leafy wreaths in their hair. Group identity takes over from individuality. They become the chorus. Then they sit and watch the events unfold, witnessing the horrors and hymning the god.
By the end, the Bakkhai are daubed in what looks like full warpaint and are ready to move on. They pack their bags and head off to the next gathering. They are a stunning presence and their songs are extraordinary, mixing vocal gymnastics with unison speaking, dialogue with percussion, poetry with noise. But the effect wears off quickly. They slow things down, they drag, they pause the action with music that occasionally heads in the direction of pretension. The one moment the Bakkhai really sizzle is when Carvel comes on playing Pentheus’ mother, Agave. Dressed in a silk slip with gore on his arms up to his elbows like elegant gloves, he dances in ecstasy, singing and exulting. The Bakkhai sing too, they are his backing vocals, and the moment is explosive. Ghosted by his definitive performance of Miss Trunchbull (English hammer-throwing champion, 1969) in Matilda, the Musical, Carvel’s Agave is repellent, desperate, comic and tragic. Moments later, Agave kneels, cradling the head that she is about to realise is her son’s, when she comes out of ecstasy and her world falls apart. Stage property heads are always risky, but this one, drained of colour, grey with pain, evokes the unbelievable, unwatchable, ghastly beheadings that now litter the internet.
Watching the unwatchable, or what you are forbidden to watch, is to the fore in this production. Pentheus longs to spy on women’s business, to see what the women on Cithaeron are getting up to with no men around. If he’d had a webcam, he might not have got torn to pieces. But the stress on watching and spying challenges the audience, especially in the intimate space that is the Almeida, where we know the performers can see us. Pentheus barks orders at us, Dionysos invites us to dance with him and the Bakkhai sit with their legs hanging over the edge of the stage as if they might jump down and come and join us, or ask us to join them.
This Bakkhai’s emphasis on the gaze and the actuality of theatre – watching, listening – is refreshing. After centuries in the theatrical doldrums because the material it deals with is too confrontational, Euripides’ play was remixed by Richard Schechner, whose Dionysus in ’69 claimed it as a play of the 1960s. From then on, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and coming-out narratives dominate its performance history.
The play has also been imprisoned by the Nietzschean binary of the Dionysiac and the Apollonian. The Almeida programme, indeed, lectures us on the subject of binaries and provides a list of no fewer than 24 that Dionysos represents. But what makes Bakkhai so interesting is that it is more continuum than binary. It’s not about male as opposed to female; it’s about blending gender, transitioning and taking the risk of being ripped to pieces. In this production, Kadmos and Teiresias put on women’s clothes – a stripy apron, a faded dress – to join the Bakkhai; Agave and her sisters become macho as they rip calves, cows and finally Pentheus to pieces. But the characters move this way and that along the gender continuum like Teiresias, the man who was a woman for seven years in another instalment of the Theban story. And while Dionysos tells us Pentheus is now fixed in death, and will enter Hades dressed as a woman, the body parts assembled onstage are ungendered, with no shred of feminising costume left.
Given the play’s interest in the gender continuum, it is hard not to ask questions of the casting. Agave is a “women of a certain age” role, the kind of role that actresses of a certain age find to be in short supply. And with the current fashion for another such role, Lady Bracknell, to be hijacked by men – David Suchet is currently following in the footsteps of Brian Bedford, Geoffrey Rush and Jim Helsinger among others – it might be a good moment to suggest we need more “male” roles to be hijacked by women.
This Bakkhai never fully believes in god in human form, but it doesn’t duck the appalling, visceral violence that Dionysos demands, and it asks hard questions of those who sit safe in the audience and watch.
Liz Schafer is professor of drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. A former chair of the University and College Union at RHUL, she now serves as its equality officer.