Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre, until 19 September 2015 (tickets – there are still a handful of remaining)
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.
Anne 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.
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.
Throughout the play characters, and the actors themselves, transform. The chorus start as hippyish revellers, the singing is light and accompanied by the spinning, twirling dancing that would not seem out of place in a muddy Glastonbury field. As the play progresses the dances are increasingly accompanied by stomps, claps and yells. They end with painted faces, thyrsus’ wielded as weapons, appearing as warrior women more than capable of descending on helpless villages.
Pentheus undergoes the most dramatic transformation when he falls under the Dionysian spell. He is turned inside out, as the play hints that what he becomes is something long buried but long desired. Bertie Carvel is superb in the role. Resisting the temptation to play Pentheus as the machismo leader who uses masculinity as a tool to question the epicene qualities of the stranger, he brings a quiet control to the part. It is a very conversational performance and rarely does he raise his voice. It is an astute move by Carvel as it is entirely in keeping with the idea that Pentheus buries his true feelings. A leader who rants and raves would surely not easily acquiesce to Whishaw’s Dionysos, who acts more to reveal what was already there rather than use magic to create an entirely new state of mind.
His transformation into a Bakkhic woman could have been difficult for those who saw him in the original cast of Matilda. He is so associated with Mrs Trunchbull that the transition is slightly difficult to take seriously, but McDonald has fun and uses it as a tool for much needed comic relief into a play light in humour. This scene between Whishaw and Carvel is one of the play’s highlights, the gently chiding Dionysus who always seems to be laughing at a joke that only he is aware of and the now pliable and submissive Pentheus. That it seems to be two sides of one person is drawn out intelligently in Carson’s translation, the conversational repartee becoming a mirror as lines are evenly balanced in the sentence structure and syllables used (see the exchange below).
‘Ready! Don’t waste any more time’
‘First you must put on women’s clothes’
‘Why? Change myself to a woman?
‘If they see a man there, you’re dead.’
‘Another good point. You’re sharp’
The fulcrum for all this action is Dionysos, and it is hard to imagine a better piece of casting than Ben Whishaw. He is not just mysterious by virtue of being am enigmatic stranger; he is mysterious in, and of, himself. It is impossible not to reference the androgynous nature but this should not be kept exclusively to the physical. There is a curious femininity to Whishaw’s clearly masculine features but more importantly is the charismatic sexuality that he exudes. His magnetism is immense and from the opening monologue where he states that he ‘came to thrill you, Thebes. Don’t doubt I will, Here’s what I need; fawnskin, thyrsus, absolute submissions’ the audience – essential the Thebes to which he speaks – is as entranced as those on stage.
Part of the appeal is in the slightly disaffected air that Whishaw employs when he speaks. There is always a hint of a smirk that suggests he is simultaneously having a conversation or a thought that is more interesting than you, whilst engaging you completely and wholly. As an approach it leaves a person sated by the attention but desperate to find out what was going on just out of sight.
The smirk is also the clearest marker of the capriciousness of the god. For all the fun of the bacchic rites, Dionysus is a god bent on avenging those who dared doubt his lineage. Whishaw’s may have given Dionysos quite a flat intonation but this enables the lines to speak for themselves. This is someone who in the space of four lines can go from ‘It was wrong of them to say these things’ to stating that he is responsible for ‘The whole bursting female seed-pod of Thebes is gone mad’ without seemingly any change in emotion.
There are a great many things to admire in the play, and central too many of them is the use of the chorus. They are the beating heart of the play. The quiet, restrained nature of Thebes is transformed by the wild energy of those on Mt Cithaeron. The decision to make it a choral composition works wonderfully and generates the momentum the play needs to push itself along into the furious climax. Occasionally lines can disappear as the a cappella singing overwhelms the clarity but elsewhere it draws out lines that are really critical. Rather than being a mass of spoken word, emphasis can be placed through the prominence within the singing. Both the cast and Orlando Gough should be applauded for making this work so well.
If the play does not quite reach the exceptional heights of Oresteia (you can hear my thoughts on that on AYULTP podcast) then it is because the play itself is more limited, and even with modern flourishes, it is further distanced from the modern world. Yet Bakkhai is still very good indeed. Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel and Kevin Harvey excel in their multiple roles and James McDonald brings a thrilling flourish to one of drama’s most brutal tragedies.
Watch a teaser trailer
Watch a panel discussion on ‘Why the Greeks matter?’ with an incomparable trio of talking heads in Rupert Goold, Deborah Warner and Ivo Van Hove