Saturday, August 15, 2015

BAKKHAI at the Almeida - playing with fire in deadly drag

Nowadays it takes something very special to get me to go to the Almeida - a theatre which, like the Young Vic, over the years has grown in self-importance and is also still one of the most uncomfortable to sit in.  They currently have a lengthy Greek Tragedy season on to remind us that they are relevant to our times - gee, I would never have made that connection myself.  But it does mean I can finally see a production of Euripedes' last and most brutal play "The Bacchae" or in Anne Carson's translation BAKKHAI.

I must admit that another reason to see it was to finally see Ben Wishaw onstage and also to see him paired with Bertie Carvel, making a fascinating chance to see two of the more interesting younger actors around together.  They certainly did not disappoint in James Macdonald's claustrophobic and relentless production.

The play was Euripedes' last great play and premiered 2,420 years ago at the Theatre of Dionysus where it won the festival's first prize, awarded posthumously as he had died the year before.  Of all the playwrights writing in Ancient Greece, only Euripedes, Sophocles and Aeschyles' work survives.  Anne Carson's translation is done with a modern slant - Carvel's Penthius could be any moralistic politician trying to impose order on something already beyond his control.

The god Dionysus, come to Thebes in human form to settle some scores.  He has sent the women of Thebes into a frenzy to punish his earth-dwelling aunts for daring to suggest that his mother was not impregnated by Zeus, and has driven them into the hills to worship him and to go native.  But he also wants to punish his earthly cousin Penthius the King of Thebes who has banned the worship of him.  He faces off with the smug King and persuades him to investigate what the wild women are doing by dressing up as a woman. Penthius, secretly intrigued by Dionysus' power, agrees...

With long hair swishing and swirling long folds, Wishaw was never less than hypnotic as Dionysus: fey, petulant, self-knowing, gender-defying, dangerously willful and in his final appearance, terrifying.  He also played the elderly courtier Tiresis and a young witness to ritual slaughter.  Bertie Carvel also played two roles: the smooth, professional politician Penthius, blindly walking into Dionysus' trap and taking to a Chanel suit and grey wig with surprising willingness, and then as Penthius' mother Agarve in long white-blonde wig and gore-splattered white sheath dress - sadly sounding a little too much like his MATILDA creation Miss Trunchbull to be taken too seriously.

Also impressive was Kevin Harvey as the older King of Thebes Cadmus and a terrified shepherd.  The scenes were punctuated by the all-female chorus who sang Orlando Gough's insistent score with an admirable full-throatiness - among their number were musical performers Helen Hobson, Melanie La Barrie and Kaisa Hammarlund - but they held up the play too often.  When you have actors of the power of Wishaw and Carvel waiting in the wings, you don't want to be hearing choral singing.

James Macdonald should have tightened these interludes a bit but otherwise his production rolled unceasingly to it's grim conclusion with a brutal, powerful pace.  Antony McDonald's set design had a grimness which was fairly unrelenting but Peter Mumford's lighting was inventive and clever.

As I said the Almeida has rather slid down my list of favorite theatres but I am glad I put myself through the hell of their seating and stuffy auditorium to experience this hypnotic production.

By the way, the first in the theatre's Greek season, THE ORESTEIA, is transferring to the Trafalgar Studios for a limited season so it will be playing at the same time as the Globe's production.  Had I not already booked tickets for the Globe production, it would get my vote as the Almeida's production is being touted as "Part The Godfather, Part Breaking Bad".  Really Almeida?  Is that really the best you can do for the play that can lay claim to being the originator of all drama? *shakes head*

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