The Bakkhai – The Almeida, July 23 2015 8pm

The short: anyone expecting “the Ben Whishaw show” may be disappointed – (it’s not his show, it’s the ensemble’s – but he is good,) in this new, largely faithful version of Euripides’ classic.

The long:

Classical in execution, using just three actors and a chorus-  James Macdonald‘s new Bacchae (here rendered as Bakkhai) draws on a new version by Anne Carson. Earthern hills and a bare raised centre stage (designs by Anthony McDonald) make the set. With its semi-circular backwall, the Almeida is well suited to these classic pieces. Indeed at one point I had the spooky impression of a voice bouncing from the back wall louder than when the character was upstage facing me.

Classical places and names and myth are retained, Bacchus still is born from Zeus’s thigh, but costuming is modern. The Bacchants for instance, sport backpacks and a few rags (costumes by Ilona Karas), and I saw one glug from a plastic bottle during a quiet moment. Despite a few false notes (a few decidedly un-Thespian “OK!”s) this translation worked.

More troublingly false-noted were the chorus – not out of tune at all (because they were singing a lot) but instead tuned not to my liking (because they were singing a lot). (members:
Amiera DarwishAruhan GalievaEugenia GeorgievaKaisa HammarlundHelen Hobson,Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, Belinda Sykes.)
As a body they could vocalise splendidly as one group when needed – no mean feat for any body of speaking actors. There was however, variously yipping (hundreds of these “yips”) yawping, hissing, a smattering of ululating (fair enough) en masse,which became a bit bothersome. Mainly it was the yipping that did me in, the same was yappy dogs can grate on the nerves. Not the ladies fault, and I’m not blaming Orlando Gough‘s music writing as such because I admire his trying new things. Many Choruses don’t speak as one, favouring a spokesperson (eg Vervain’s recent Bacchae) and those that do, often don’t sing, as here.

There was another other problem. Gough and Macdonald resort to a kind of Sprechstimme, the main body of the chorus speaking the line, and a few members of the chorus singing it. This is perhaps an attempt to give otherworldly or uncanny but instead became something I tired of. It felt as if those in charge couldn’t decide on one or the other: speech or music (even though clearly they had trumped for “both”). I like both, but not together. As my companion said some parts sent a shiver down the spine (eg Gough’s “Safe Harbour” song for chorus) and some parts made one think “OK enough already”. I don’t know if she was thinking of the pseudo Middle Eastern keening, or the widespread use of humming, or the yipping, but I could see her point. Heavy echoes and an underlying pedal tone (Paul Arditti on sound) tried to maintain tension.

Nevertheless, Gough and Macdonald’s use of the chorus here reminds us of where their opera equivalent and choral equivalent came from: the cry of the Bacchants was pure Wagner – these were close kin to Valkyries, and its probably undeniable that any Mystery cults used music, chanting, keening, incantation etc in ritual, but hey, I want my cults like I want my ice cream – all one type and not an admixture. Thus, the chorus.

Bertie Carvel‘s Pentheus is less a king, and more a rich-git, suited and booted and all brain, no heart. He calls Whishaw’s Bacchus “an indoor man” and a “casuistical Bacchic show-off”. His contempt is unbridled. He is understandably puzzled that a large portion of his populace have upped sticks (or gathered Thyrsus – loudly clomped throughout) and decamped (or camped) to Mount Kythion in their turn to piety (or impeity). It was a bit incongruous to see this King dressed up in a suit, and then admonishing his grandfather and Tiresias for wearing ivy on their heads ( “take that lampshade of your head” he says.) Fair enough, if my grandpops announced that he was going to try and observe some crazy rituals on a mountain side, and wanted to pay his respects which one indicates by grabbing a wizened branch and wearing Ivy on your bonce, I’d be a bit “um…” too.

As Tiresias (and messenger, and of course Bacchus) Ben Whishaw is all one wishes for. He is capable of a gravitas that belies his youth, and holds the stage – and us, in thrall to his gifts. Well suited then to play this character: Whishaw convinces as a charismatic because he is charismatic. I was reminded (on this my third viewing of him treading the boards) of his similarities with Rylance. The latter’s hyper-realism and commitment to making acting sound like quasi improvisatory speaking can become a bit mannered in itself, but one forgives due to the intelligence underlying it. Whishaw shares this intelligence, his way of crafting a line cuts sense from the same cloth as Rylance. Whishaw lets Carson’s unpretentious text come to life, conveying it with an easy colloquialism and calm: he makes us forget we are hearing written lines. His gift for delivering important lines casually, and casual lines importantly is considerable. A quicksilver mind lurks under this Bacchus’s beautiful features. A shame then that some audience members defaulted to little snorts of laughter at certain lines. I think that when Bacchus says Pentheus “is the saddest name I know” to him, it really is a moment of tragedy, not comedy.

Long-haired and wearing a dress, Whishaw’s Dionysus is part Russell Brand, part Jesus and part Conchita Wurst. Comely, charged with appeal and resolutely androgyne, it is no wonder Pentheus recoils in horror at his touch, and at their first meetings. His arrival on stage was accomplished by a flick of light: let there be light, indeed.

I found Kevin Harvey‘s Mancunian accented guard really hard to understand at first, and I wasn’t a fan of his “yes suh, no bwana” shepherd (but that same Shepherd’s invocation of GOD was quite amazing – perhaps with aid from Patsy Rodenburg in voice coaching?), but his Cadmus was rather better. In my eyes, no need for accents really. No accents from Carvel as Pentheus and Agave, but a bit of regal affrontedness or pique would have been good. After all, Dionysus abuses both rank and morals, the two closely linked in Theban society. His affront to decency is an affront to order. This could have been highlighted a touch more. So too a bit more could have been made of Agave’s involvement in the myth near the start, to link up with her later appearance.

This appearance is well done: truly she (Carvel again) is mad, dressed in grey shift and long grey hair, covered in black ichor/stylised blood (a nice touch). Red wall wash light (Peter Mumford, lighting) suggested Pentheus’ sparagmos, black paint the curse and the aftermath. Carvel does his best work in the play as Agave, the revelation scene with Harvey’s Cadmus well drawn, and Harvey’s “O, pity!” and grief well given. Whishaw’s narration of the sparagmos scene could have done with a bit more anguish perhaps (and the same goes for the Chorus too in my eyes. How about a bit of improv-y abandonment?) but then, when one has seen horror, sometimes Conradian restraint is all one can muster.

Carson’s Dionysus says to Pentheus “the Mysteries are serious. They hate a trivialiser.” Macdonald’s direction and Carson’s text doesn’t trivialize Euripides classic: the three principals deliver strongly and with focus – but where they should be the urgent engine of drama, the chorus instead threatens to unbalance the work with their tricksy material. More performances might bed it in more, unity of purpose drawing drama taut. For now it remains (to its credit) a stripped down affair. More consistent writing for the Maenads would have made it stronger.

8/10

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