Here was another great evening from Chris Vervain Mask Theatre. As with their Trojan Women from last year this was Greek theatre pure in intention and well delivered, its inducements, its piety, and exhortations in full flow and the more compelling for it.
Once more, masks and once more, uncanny to look at. As a dramatic device they distance and yet fascinate. An audience member complained about not being able to understand the actors because of the masks, but I would only suggest that perhaps his hearing is defective. Vervain (and mask acting) demands enunciation from the cast, and they fulfil.
One realises, on seeing the cast unmasked, just how hard it must be to act en masque, under theatre lights and too, in Attic heat! Projection is required, clarity and force of voice. Tone of voice becomes crucial. There needs must be a physicality overwrought in appearance without mask, but necessary when wearing one. An expansive, almost stereotyped gestural code, close to mime, become critical. Too, en masse, nothing can match the picture of a stage full of masked players. The effect is spooky.
Vervain’s masks themselves are excellent, and a lot of hard work must have gone into their construction. Fully rewarded. The large eyes implore and appeal to us, one imputes reactions onto the dull intimation of flesh which forms the masked face, as if willing emotion onto the blank form, animating movement upon their suggestive armature.
I am unable to comment on the achievements of the Vellacott translation, nor as to whether it was apposite here to use it as the source text for staging or whether Mr Vellacott intended for it to be staged (if I chance upon a copy, maybe it says in there). As a dramatic text it certainly works, and credit must go to the young actors for their feats of memorising a text full of odd words, classical references and names. No wonder a prompt sat close at hand, lest there be any mistake.
Happy to report, she was not needed.
All the actors did a good job. Alyssa Burnett‘s Messenger in particular excelled. Her narration of Pentheus’ sparagmos on Mount Kithaeron was wonderfully delivered, never lapsing into oratory or straight factual relation. Burnett was sensitive to tone and nuance, the whole event given feelingly, as Hamlet may have said (and here sawing of air definitely needed!) Had it been an opera (and Partch wrote one for it, and I was briefly by these proceedings inspired to, too) applause for her. I just about restrained myself.
Special mention too to Briony Rawle. In Vervain’s Trojan Women she had the lion’s share (pun excused?) of the business, and on strength of that memory I booked to see this. Happy to report she is back, as Agave. As with her Hecabe from Trojan Women she found both power and pathos in the role, an investment of self well rewarded by developing a strong performance for us.
Praise too for Alexander Pett, his human Dionysus was by turns a coy, imperious, impish trickster, fey in his supernatural powers and a being given to flashes of caprce and anger. Will Bryant‘s Pentheus, falling in and out of that same thrall was finely done, whether offering a register of pique, or regal affront, or plain appeal, all was finely delineated (and again to reiterate, tone, voice and gesture are all we can judge on here).
Joanna Howden‘s Tiresias was convincing from wizened head to curled toe, her fingers gnarled and her shuffling frame bent. I wondered though if she might have benefitted from more age in the voice, but this is small matter. Cadmus, the poor put-upon king was well given by Emily Salmon and the revelation scene of Pentheus’ corpse with Rawle was well done. Rowan Winter‘s herdsman was wittily rustic and expansively acted, in a Scottish accent no less!
It must be difficult to speak to a mask, through a mask. It must be hard too, to take a fake head (Rawle as Agave) (or skull, pace Hamlet again) and direct to it, and by extension to us, a great weight of grief and sadness. It must be hard to make the words live, and the themes of this most distant and different world live as relevant to our own, and yet the cast succeeded in doing so.
Costumes were fittingly “Greek” (I am not expert to determine authenticity, or how close to historical reality, though Pentheus benefitted from some very finely made sandals!) and again, looked purpose made, by Chris Vervain, Linda Kerr and Frieda Bier. Pentheus’ head-covering was memorably nice, as was his purple robe and crown. The Bacchants carried thyrsus and were garlanded in ivy, just as I had hoped.
The Chorus too, delivered their lines with authority, splitting the speeches and narration between themselves in with assurance. Their choreography by Jemma Gould brought to mind black-figure vase work and proto-slyphides. (Are the Maenads kin and sisters to those same fey beings?) Lighting from Luis Alvarez was nuanced and unobtrusive, exactly what this piece demanded.
Finally (and the foregoing implies praise for Ms Vervain herself) praise to the trio of Penelope Anne Shipley, Anita Creed and Katie Arnstein for their performance of original music for this theatre experience. Singing with no actual instrumental backup, save the occasional tambourine or flute, their lines are naked, close to “elemental” and certainly suggestive of Dionysus’ exotic appeal. I have good memories of the same with Trojan Women, but recall there perhaps less singing under/over the action, and more of music used to link and set scenes. In this memory I may be wrong, but praise to these young ladies for their music-making. Praise indeed to all for an arresting evening of theatre, an evening which sets up all kind of thoughts whirling: about history, religion, Fate, family and the arc of theatre from Euripedes to our present day. Lucky us to have these texts, and my gratitude to Vervain for having the wherewithal and drive to present them to us. I hope the actors and Vervain return next year. I will definitely see them again if so.