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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Watch a teaser trailer


To keep your voice while all around you are losing theirs…

Dumbstruck – Fine Chisel @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 19 July

You really would have to be a rather hard-hearted soul to dislike Fine Chisel, the theatre company behind Dumbstruck; under Tom Spencer’s artistic directorship they create effortlessly charming work that belies the graft Robin McLoughlin as Ted, Dumbstruck at BACneeded to generate such lightness of touch. Dumbstruck may not be without flaws but it is rarely far from raising a smile when the talented cast of five – switching fluidly between roles that require them to be multi-instrumentalists, singers, dancers and actors – are in full flow.

Fine Chisel settled on an intriguing premise – that of the loneliest whale in the world – and crafted a multi-stranded story around it. It is a good starting point for such a musically-inflected company as whales are indelibly linked in the imagination with the slightly dreamy idea of the whale song. They communicate through a form of music and are a natural fit for a company like Fine Chisel, who often seem closer to integrating theatre into their music than music into their theatre.

Carolyn Goodwin in Fine Chisel's Dumbstruck 9Dumbstruck has a lovely opening, with instruments played in unexpected ways to create a sense of the oceanic wild and the strangely alien sounds of the whale. It is an engaging start and as the play widens its focus into the Alaskan wilderness and Ted’s research station it shows huge promise as an aural existential fantasy; an ode to isolation, conducted through music, seen through man and through the great unknowable, unseen presence of the whale.

However as it opens out to reveal Ted’s journey and introduces the figures of Fiona and Mal, who both wrestle with their own increasing sense of loss, it is unable to sustain its focus on this initial premise. At times the production seems to suffer from a lack of confidence in itself; it lacks stillness and has a forced busyness as it flits from idea to idea with little time to settle. The performers are talented enough, in particular Robin McLoughlin’s Ted and Holly Beasley-Garrigan’s Fiona, that you wish they would slow down and allow their presence to wash over the audience.

Underpinning it all is the music and here Fine Chisel can do no wrong. The sound is gorgeous throughout, from the lovingly created ocean-scape to the finely rendered pastiches of 1960’s pop and folk, whilst even the
transition scenes are underscored by a wonderfully jazzy sound that seems to channel the finger-snapping funk of Charlie Mingus.

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Poking the Russian Bear

Opus No 7Moscow School of Dramatic Art Theatre (Dmitry Krymov Lab) @ Barbican Theatre, until 14 June 2014

We are in the middle of LIFT 2014; the annual festival that is both glorious celebration of international theatre and sober reminder of the staid and conservative nature of so many Anglo-American creations.

This can rarely be seen as starkly as in the spell-binding Opus No 7; concocted by the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, it 13467788355_dbe5f9fa69_bcombines sublime beauty with haunting imagery to create a remarkable balance that allows a curiously harmonious co-existence of opacity and clarity. As it overwhelms the senses one is left with the impression that this is a performance that could not have been conceived of in this country let alone created here.

Watching Opus No 7 is like working through a cryptic crossword clue. The explanation of the image is always tantalisingly close but remains impenetrable until resolved. There are no easy answers but one holds on to the images as they morph fluidly from one startling creation to another with faith that a narrative will emerge.

OpusNo7Images coalesce until they suggest an idea. The piece is often without dialogue and usually underscored with the lightest of musical notes, faintly directing and reacting to the action. The first half is titled ‘Genealogy’ and tells the tale of the Jews in the second world war but with continually hints to the wider narrative of Jewish history and their earliest beginnings. Biblical reference points abound and their cast have a childish innocence that harks back to the earliest days of God’s children.

They are nameless figures who slowly wander through their past claiming fragments – taking the form of letters, photos and memories – to shape their lost identity. They seem scattered to the wind, lost as individuals but finding each other as one finds ones community. They exist in a hinterland reminiscent of Beckett and the image of Krapp winding through his old tapes comes to mind as they pore through scraps of books becoming intrigued by the unfamiliar words, the sounds and shapes of names that no longer mean anything to them.

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The Stow Festival – A shameless plug and a great event

Tomorrow kicks off a project that I have been working on in the background  for almost 9 months. No, I am not expecting a baby but in its own way the residents of Walthamstow can look forward to a new arrival  of their very own tomorrow: a dedicated local music  festival in an area that is in desperate need of more culture.

A number of ‘concerned local residents’ decided to take matters into their own hands and have put together a 4 day festival that takes place over 9 venues and includes over 25 musicians. A massive thank you must go to all the bands, venues and local businesses who have helped us to create The Stow Festival.

Now all we need is an audience…this is where you come in.

If you live in Walthamstow you have no excuse,

If you have friends who live in Walthamstow, well its the perfect time to visit,

If you have never been to Walthamstow, well what could be better than kicking off your experience with a whole host of live music to enjoy.

Shameless plug yes but this blog does not endorse any old crap. It should be the last good weekend of the year – after this it will be cold, dark, gloomy and dank. So finish off the Summer in style by showing your support and having a great day out.

Stow Festival Programme


Ok shameless, shameless plug over. Normal service will be resumed once the festival is out the way and I have managed to catch up on the many hours of sleep that I am currently missing.

Reviews over the next few weeks should include: Othello in Sheffield, Hamlet in the Young Vic and One Man, Two Guvnors in its West End incarnation. If you have any productions that you would like me to review then feel free to get in touch, I am always interested in fringe productions and new writing.