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Thrills and chills enough to satisfy the most capricious of gods

Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (ticketsthere are still a handful of remaining)Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai2 Photo credit Marc Brenner

The first notable thing about ‘Bakkhai’, Anne Carson’s new translation of Euripides ancient tragedy, is the missing definite article from the play’s title. Commonly known as ‘The Bacchae’ the removal of ‘the’ feels in itself a significant act in keeping with the indeterminate nature of the play’s leading character, Dionysos.

We use ‘the’ when the person taking in the information will know exactly to what we will refer. Yet in a Thebes that has been brought under the spell of a mysterious interloper nothing is quite as it seems. Dionysos may appear as man or, as seen by Pentheus a ‘bull leading me in procession [with] horns growing out of your head’,  entranced ‘menead[s] sitting happily  working at little tasks’ are also capable of pulling ‘a calf to pieces as it bellowed alive in her bare hands’. Thebes itself is lit by two suns/sons; one for those who see and one those who do not.  In this world how can we be sure enough of what we know for anything to feel definite.

Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel face off in Bakkhai Almeida Theatre Photo credit Marc BrennerAnne Carson’s decision is just one small part of a superb translation. It follows her exceptional reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone for Ivo Van Hove. In all the plaudits heading for Ben Whishaw’s central performance and Orlando Gough’s magnificent composition for the Chorus, Carson’s contribution should not be underestimated. If her translation of Antigone stripped backed much of the poetic, Bakkhai feels more of a hybrid. If it uses a simplified language that allows a naturalness of speech within Thebes that is much in keeping with the modern world – Pentheus’ order to ‘go to Teiresias’ little outpost and bulldoze it’ could come from any age – then upon Mt Cithaeron the language changes in order to retain the sense of ancient rites and rituals.

It feels that this approach to the writing is aligned with James McDonald’s vision of the play. Transformation seems to be at the heart of McDonald’s approach. Language transforms depending on place.

The arrival of this mysterious stranger is the catalyst for a series of transformations. Pentheus and Dionysos are both sons of Thebes but equally they are two halves of one person. Dionysos is the explosion of all that Pentheus has repressed, in himself and in the society he governs. We feel the yearning of the populace when the shepherd, despite terror at what he has witnessed, recounts how Dionysos ‘gave the gift of wine to men: why, without wine we’ve no freedom from pain. Without wine there’s no sex. Without sex life isn’t worth living’. This is both act of narration and reproach for Pentheus.

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Culture Crash

Jekyll & Hyde – Chung Ying Theatre Company in association with Red Shift Productions @ Platform Theatre, until 08 August 2015 (tickets)

Whilst different artistic pursuits offer their different pleasures, theatre offers something that art, film, TV and literature struggle to match; it is the only medium whose primary output is never static. Either a production reworks an existing play or it is new work that is in a constant state of evolution. There is also never just one output, each performance will be unique and, in a longer running show, a company is likely to seek improvements by continuing to tweak the production.

It is the last of these reasons that drew me to Jekyll & Hyde at Platform Theatre. Two years ago Red Shift partnered Flipping the Bird to produce an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous story. My recollection is of a frustrating experience as it showed real promise but was undermined by a script that ought to have gone through several more drafts. (Previous review here).

Having gone through the Edinburgh experience and onto China after the Chung Ying Theatre Company recruited Red Shift founder, Jonathan Holloway, I was fascinated to see how the play might have transformed. There was anticipation over finding out how cultural collaboration had affected it, and how it been altered in the interim.

The results, to be perfectly frank, were disappointing. The play, rather like Dr Jekyll, seems to be suffering from a crisis of identity.

Mr Holloway has come up with a neat premise (altered from the previous version), where Dr Jekyll is a woman looking to transform herself into a man due to experiences suffered in her war-torn homeland. Transformation becomes a survival mechanism, and her physical transition is accompanied by a psychological one so that Hyde is a manifestation of that which she most fears.

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The absurdities of dogma

Noonday Demons – Rough Haired Pointer @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

Watching Rough Haired Pointer revive Peter Barnes’ 1969 play, Noonday Demons, Civilian Theatre could not help but reflect on the problems that arise from knowing a theatre company’s past work. Civilian Theatre is a recent convert to the charms of the company, which occurred after being captivated by their sharp, ingenious and extremely funny adaptation of The Diary of a Nobody. It was such a highly stylised work, both in Karina Nakaninsky’s set and costume design and also in the clearly tight-knit ensemble performances of the cast, that an impression was left of a company with a clear, visual identity.

As a result it proved disconcerting to enter the King’s Head Theatre and be presented with a sparse set drenched in a hazy, warm light that very much suggests a barren cave in a distant desert. Equally the sight of Jordan Mallory-Skinner as a bearded, dishevelled monk teetering on the brink of, or possibly have long having lost his grip on, sanity standing in front of a totemic mound of human dung jarred with my last sight of him playing the charming, if long-suffering, Mrs Pooter.

That these feelings arose is clearly not the fault of the company and should not have a bearing on Noonday Demons. Yet it is right to mention them as they may help to explain why, despite fitfully exploding into life, the production never quite manages to convince.

This is the second of Barnes’ earlier work to be restaged in the space of the year. The Jamie Lloyd-directed The Ruling Class had the distinct advantage of being able to call upon the A-list talent of James McAvoy to shift tickets and, looking around the auditorium, the King’s Head Theatre  illustrates the current appeal of the playwright without a star name attached.

Barnes is a fascinating writer, capable of highly inventive scenarios that intrigue, but he frustrates as much as he satisfies. Over the course of an excessive 2½hr running time, The Ruling Class proved itself flabby and rather dull. The humour disappeared entirely for large sections, and it was only thanks to the explosive energy of Mr McAvoy’ brilliant lead performance that the production avoided disaster. Thankfully Noonday Demons is far shorter, and contains a wonderful premise of two saints battling for control of a cave in which to spend their hermetic isolation, the rivalry spiralling absurdly into the extremes as they battle to demonstrate they are the most devoted.

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Lovett’s Pies: Enjoyable but with some questionable content

Lovett + Todd – Another Soup @ King’s Head Theatre, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

One of the more intriguing aspects of fiction is how the creation of a make-believe world with fully-formed characters is enough to tempt audiences and artists alike into constantly wishing to re-enter that world and find out more about the part of the character’s life that exists just out of sight of the viewer. A key marker is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, with the implication being that it fills in the pre-story of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester. There are many more stories in this vein that take us right up to the present with The Meursault Investigation which reframes Camus’ The Outsider through the brother of the eponymous outsider of the title.

However as post-modernity and a self-reflexive irony envelops our culture, we have seen the focus change from adding to the original to reworking the source material so that it is framed in possibilities that would seem absurd to the original authors. Poor Jane Austen has suffered greatly at the hands of others. Indignities heaped upon her characters. Like murder mysteries? Like Pride and Prejudice? Well, try Death in Pemberley! Love zombies? Love Austen? You’ll love Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!

That is not to imply that there is anything wrong with this. Quite the contrary, in part this is just a conscious acknowledgement of what has been going on for centuries. Playwrights, novelists, storytellers are continually retelling the same stories through different prisms. This was brought home watching the Oresteia and discovering that the events set in motion by the return of Orestes are mirrored with startling similarity in Hamlet’s return to Elsinore.

The advantages are clear; by using an existing text, you can trade off brand recognition to attract an audience and you avoid the accusation of plagiarism because it is implicit in the process. Yet it comes weighted with great risk; audiences are interested in part because they are emotionally invested in the original characters. Toy with their emotions at great peril.

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Big ideas for little people in charming Alice opera

“Curiouser and Curiouser” Civilian Theatre thought to himself as he entered Holland Park. He was lost in the apparent fact that it was supposed to be British summertime and yet here he was and the sun was out and there had been no chance to use his umbrella at all. Disappearing into the machinations of such an absurd situation, Civilian Theatre soon found himself back where he had begun and had entirely forgotten the wise advice to “begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

Pulling himself back together (how silly, he thought to himself, how do you pull yourself together when you can never be apart, because, or unless, you are a part of yourself) he hurried on. “Oh dear, oh dear, I shall be too late” he began to panic, but luckily at that moment he ran straight into a café. It was such a hot day that purchasing a refreshing a little drink in a tall bottle (or was it a tall drink in a little bottle, oh my, everything was getting into quite a muddle) seem an entirely reasonable proposition.

“DRINK ME” the bottle screamed as he headed on towards his destination. And if you are the sort of person who trifles with minor details (or is a Major in detailed trifles) then you may be interested to head to the Yucca Lawn, nestled behind the big house. If you find yourself reaching the chess set from the north then turn around, or, of course, turn around two times if you reach it from the south.

Well what a strange effect this bottle has, thought Civilian Theatre, as he was handed a square cushion for his round behind. Of average height and average rotundness, he soon discovered that he must have gained gargantuan proportions because he appeared to tower over ranks of assembled small people. Some of whom seemed to be under the control of equally oversized people. Closer examination revealed them to be children, lots and lots of children. Of all shapes and sizes. But few larger than medium. And some probably only medium-rare.

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Revisiting Constellations: Do stars lose their sparkle?

Constellations – Trafalgar Studios, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

It is hard to overstate what a runaway success Nick Payne’s Constellations has been. Since it premiered at the Royal Court in January 2012, it has enjoyed a West End run, a Broadway run (with no less a pairing than Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson), a national tour, won Best Play in the Evening Standard Awards and was nominated for three Tony Awards.

In terms of new British drama, the only recent works that match its transatlantic critical and public acclaim are Peter Morgan’s The Audience (whichConstellations received a significant boost from its subject matter and star-led casting) and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (truly brilliant but now almost 5 years old). There may be others but you get the point, Mr Payne can be placed among a select band of playwrights to have written a 21st century play that will be mentioned when we reflect back on this period in the years to come.

There is a risk that re-watching a play leads to a breaking of the spell, a dissipation of the magic that you allowed to be cast first time around when everything was fresh, exciting and new. The peril may have been even greater with Constellations, which is so delicately constructed that the fear is, if one looks closely enough, the unsightly cogs that keep the intertwined narrative threads running smoothly without snagging and fraying will become all too visible.

Yet watching Constellations for a second time is a rewarding experience. For a play that is a rich and considered portrait of love, it is perhaps appropriate that experiences of the first time exist as a blur; the brain is left to furiously piece together a flood of memories and fragmented emotions. You leave the auditorium exhilarated but exhausted, mental faculties taken through a mangle to leave you physically strung out.

Second time around everything can appear that little bit slower. The big surprises may have gone but it is an opportunity to luxuriate in everything you missed out on first time round. With the benefit of knowing what happens and how it all pieces together, the second time allows you to observe the process as much as watch the play.

It is a chance to explore and to probe. Was it just a flash in the pan or is there something longer lasting? Were we all sucked in by a snake-oil salesman’s polish or is there an intellectual depth that rewards repeat experiences?

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