views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Bacchae
The Blue Elephant Theatre
21st April 2016


The ensemble

Photography © Adam Trigg

As much as I love Greek mythology, I've never been able to decide whether the authors of these fascinating tales were trailblazing feminists or horribly misogynistic. Take the women in Euripedes' The Bacchae for example; they refuse to play at being good housewives, instead indulging in a hedonistic convention-defying way of life, romping around in the mountains and answering to no man. However, are they truly free to do what they want, or are they being manipulated and degraded by a vengeful and whimsical god, whilst completely bladdered and unable to comprehend the repercussions of their actions?

These are the sort of difficult questions which make The Bacchae a challenging and thought-provoking play, however this adaptation by Lazarus is nonetheless very accessible. When Dionysus (Nick Biadon) confidently introduces himself, instinctively we know he's the kid from school who got bullied, grew up, got hot and got the last laugh. You don't have to be familiar with all of Zeus's indiscretions and complicated family tree as there's a backstory instantly revealed in Biadon's demeanour. His character is sexy and he knows it, a toned chest peeking out from an unfastened silky red robe, but under the swagger, we can sense a lifetime of resentment bubbling away. This is a demigod who blatantly feels hard done by. Whilst Dionysus declares he just wants Pentheus (Stephen Emery) to concede his godly parentage, you know the two males are never going to shake hands and walk off in different directions having declared a truce. Anger a god, or even a demigod, and all will not be well.

Costume designer Sorcha Corcoran dresses Dionysus's bacchanalian followers, the maenads (RJ Seeley, Tamara Camacho, Liis Mikk, Amy Allen, Kenzie Horn, Rachel Agustsson and Katherine Judkins) in white and flesh coloured full slips. The women writhe and sigh seductively in the shadows, contrasting with Pentheus and his rather more conservatively dressed Theban citizens, a bunch of suited and booted uptight city slickers (Lysanne Van Overbeek, Ashley Holman, Aidan Valentine and Jake Francis). Visually the divide is clear from the outset, passion versus logic, soft fabrics versus hard lines. Corcoran does though incorporate the same colour of the maenads' lingerie into the Thebans' urban uniforms, showing that even in the most civilised of people, there are always more base instincts present. As Dionysus' influence grows, the divide is further burred.

Director and adaptor Gavin Harrington-Odedra runs through the usual checklist of Lazarus musts - smoke, vibrant stage lighting, contemporary music, strong movement. Having seen lighting designer Stuart Glover and sound designer Neil McKeown's respective work on numerous previous occasions, it's no surprise that they firmly contribute to the success of this production. They're both very reliable names in theatreland. However, Harrington-Odedra makes an unexpected departure from the company's usual respectful approach to classical literature by cutting Euripides' words and inserting some devised modern dialogue. It's certainly a bold choice, but it's debatable as to whether it's a wise one.

Sonja Zobel as Agave

Photography © Adam Trigg

These revisions to the script do frequently prompt warm laughter with the audience finding the new words honest and relatable, a connection enhanced by the use of contemporary regional accents, firmly linking the maenads from thousands of years ago to all women today who have ever felt the slightest bit trapped or under pressure. Giving new voices to Dionysus' followers helps make them seem more human, making their descent into mob mentality all the more shocking. We know they're people, not animals. Although you do have to applaud Harrington-Odedra's bravery in refreshing the script in this way, there are times that the overall inconsistency in the language does feels jarring and disengages us from the action. Perhaps if we were to spend longer with the cast, this would even out. The other trade off is that with this version of The Bacchae being a slick 60 minutes straight through, Harrington-Odedra doesn't get to fully exploit the company's unrivalled talent for ensemble movement. We get a taste, but we're left hungry for more.

If we are detached from any of the bloody action, Sonja Zobel firmly reels us back in with her truly captivating performance as Agave, a mother overwhelmed with both grief and love. Her pain in realising what she's done is excruciatingly veident as Katrine (Van Overbeek) forces her to confront the bloody truth. It's thoroughly unsettling and uncomfortable, with Agave's unrestrained pure emotion contrasted by Katrine's best efforts to not fall apart, maintaining a sense of decorum and dignity right up to the very end. We pity her for her cruel loss, but we admire her strength of spirit. Van Overbeek's measured performance is probably what tips the balance in favour of this being a feminist production after all. Probably.

An imaginative, ambitious and lively interpretation, The Bacchae makes for a bloody good show. For something that was first written thousands of years ago, it also feels strangely relevant.

The Bacchae ran from 19th April to 7th May 2016 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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