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The Bacchae, Royal Exchange, review

Lucy Tomlinson remains in control as other woman go wild at the Royal Exchange

Written by . Published on November 19th 2010.


The Bacchae, Royal Exchange, review

A hot new icon, celebrity spawn of Zeus (born out of his thigh, scandal), is big in the East and is now rocking back to his hometown to claim his rightful place in the divine A-list in Braham Murray’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy, The Bacchae.

The costumes were a mixture of timeless and Topshop’s Christmas collection, the chorus of dancers/actresses clad in lots of gold and corseting made a perfect bunch of intoxicated worshippers in touch with their bestial sides, a bit like the Locks on a Saturday night. And who knew the Greek gods wore Asics?

Dionysius (an excellent Jotham Annan), young and gorgeous, looking like a footballer, speaking like a new-age swami, Christmas decorations winningly spangled in his hair, inspires frenzied devotion in his female followers. These superfans in turn arouse fear and lust-tinged loathing in the good citizens of Thebes.

Of course a classic must resonate with the now, and Euripides’ study of the feral urges that pulsate just below the skin of polite society is still painfully relevant.

Which brings me to the wonderfully funny Sam Alexander’s King of Thebes, Pentheus.

At first cocky and patronizing, the pompous Pentheus knows what’s best for his subjects. He rigidly forbids the worship of Dionysus, locking up the god (disguised as a priest) and scolding his worshipful grandfather, Cadmus (Wyllie Longmore). Austerity rules for this Hellenic David Cameron figure and he is not about to let a bunch of boozed-up bawds (who, horrors, aren’t even members o f The Bullingdon Club) bring the name of his proud country into disrepute.

So the twin stars of Pentheus and Dionysus orbit one another carefully until one spins off his axis. Gods won’t stay locked up for long and Pentheus soon goes through a radical shift.

In a scene which reminded me of one of Charlie Brooker’s sketches, Daily Mail Island, he is soon itching to spy on the lewd rites of the drunken women, who probably get their kit off while they are about it. Disgusting. And if he has to put on a dress and hide behind a tree playing with his thyrsus in order to Clean Up This Filth, then by the gods, he will.

Inevitably it all goes horribly, and bloodily, wrong. The sweet, reasonable Dionysus it becomes clear, is a sweet, not-so-reasonable psychopath, the lesson being, trying to control forces we don’t understand ends in disaster for everyone. The gods, you see, just aren’t like me and thee.

The staging is simple but effective, the round transformed into red wine stain which darkens from rose-pink halo to a blood-red weeping eye.

Some of the other effects through (a Boris Johnson-inspired wig on a crucial prop, oodles of red silly string) were in danger of encouraging the humour over the horror, which is in fine balance to begin with.

With this in mind, it is perhaps better that the most grisly moments happen off-stage, though an audience whipped into a frenzy of blood lust is bound to feel a tiny bit cheated on missing out on the best tearing-limb-from-limb action. No fear though, writer Mike Poulton ’s adaptation has preserved Euripides’ most stomach-churning speeches for your revolted pleasure.

The costumes were a mixture of timeless and Topshop’s Christmas collection, the chorus of dancers/actresses clad in lots of gold and corseting made a perfect bunch of intoxicated worshippers in touch with their bestial sides, a bit like the Locks on a Saturday night. And who knew the Greek gods wore Asics?

Back to that chorus though, and though having them writhe around in a kind of modern dance version of a girls’ night out is a great idea, it somehow fails to convey ecstasy and excess and ends up being a bit interpretative dance class. “Now be a wild animal. A sexy wild animal!” Though I have to say, they all looked beautiful, and as the leader of the chorus, Penny Layden’s northern tones of doom sounded appropriately dour.

For all Pentheus being made to look like a prudish misogynist in need of a bit of limb rearrangement, it turns out that the women get pretty short shrift after all. They are duped by their god and shown to be in turns cringing in fear, cruelly complacent or just plain bonkers. So unfortunately this isn’t really the blow for feminism you might expect.

In short, The Bacchae looked great, was horrifying and hilarious, with great performances from its lead characters. If, very occasionally, I found it less than compelling, well maybe I’m just a little bit too frightened by the gruesome combination of ancient brutality and modern dance.

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