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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Austere Agony in Antigone

Antigone – Barbican, until 28 March 2015 (tickets – returns only)

It seems that London theatres cannot get enough of the ancient Greeks. Last year we were treated to a contemporary Medea at the National and a relatively classical Electra at the Old Vic. The Credit Jan Versweyweld Almeida have announced a season containing The Bakkhai, Oresteia and, tantalisingly, a chance to watch Rupert Goold direct his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in another Medea (and one would love to have Freud’s opinion on that choice!).

Sandwiched between them, but certainly not squeezed out, is what can only be described as a major theatre event; Ivo van Hove – fresh off the universally acclaimed A View From The Bridge – directing Juliette Binoche in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Of all the Greek tragedies it is Antigone that appears the most timeless. The moral dilemma at its heart is as immediately relevant today as it was when it was written 2500 years ago. It is a staggering achievement of simplicity and a constant reminder of the universal nature of human experience. Whilst society is broadly unrecognisable from the small slave-owning city-states of Greece in 5th century BC, the central compelling issue – of whether a person can hold a moral law above that of the state – remains at the heart of many contemporary debates.

Ivo van Hove works with a minimalist’s clarity and sense of purpose to bridge a gap between the ancient and the modern. He is supported through Jan Versweyweld’s set design that splits the large Barbican space into two distinct areas. The downstage is kitted out in a sleek, functional contemporary urban style, whilst the upstage is starkly bare. Both locations give no hint to place to emphasise the universalism of the narrative.

Van Hove further stresses the ageless, placeless nature of Antigone’s dilemma by projecting huge, abstract scenes onto the back wall. A huge circular cut-out at the start of the play gives the impression of a solar eclipse – a traditional signifier of the intervention of the gods – before slowly rolling aside to let light stream in and bath the stage in a clinical brightness. It is a production where everyone’s actions will come under the microscope and be subjected to judgement; by the gods, by the playwright and by the audience.

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