Monday, 10 August 2015

Theatre 2015: Review Twenty-One

Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre, London. August 2015.

The trouble with booking theatre in advance to ensure you get a ticket is that things like Tube strikes can crop up.  Luckily there are two train routes to London and one of these put the theatre in easy, if up hill, walking distance and so Rebecca and I weren't troubled by the strike at all.

I confess that I like Greek drama, to the extent of going to see it (and mostly enjoy it) even when it is performed in Ancient Greek and I was looking forward to this, even with it being a reworking of the script - but then what translation of a play that is 2000+ years old isn't?!

The story is a tragedy. The God Dionysus has been denied his status by the city in which he was born, and his mother branded a liar for claiming to have been Zeus's mistress. The young God has returned to Thebes in order to make the city accept him. He has turned his aunts mad and created a cult of women living in the hills above. His cousin, Pentheus, now king of Thebes really refuses to acknowledge Dionysus and so the two come face to face and the God systematically destroys his family and city. Cheerful stuff!

The staging was both wonderfully traditional, just three actors and a chorus, and cleverly modern (the chorus were all female) and from the start I was hooked.  There has been a lot of comment about the role of the chorus in reviews, and a lot of it has been negative. I however found them to be fascinating. A group of 10 women spoke and moved in absolute unison as well as singing many of their lines in a truly hypnotic fashion. The comments have called these interludes overlong and confusing yet when you go back and read a translation of the original play this is just how they come across. The Chorus speeches are the longest in the play and they do transform between Dionysus' supporters and the women of Thebes and to be honest even in the original text you are wishing they'd get on with it. In this version their singing did help me overcome this problem and I was swept away by the sound.

The three lead actors, male, played all the rest of the roles and while Ben Wishaw is getting all the credit for this play (and somewhat deservedly - he is totally compelling on stage) I found the stand out to be Bertie Carvel, who played Pentheus and his mother. Watching his downfall at the hands of a vengeful God was stunning and then to see him transform into his mother, also driven mad by Dionysus, was brilliant.

Much has also been said about Wishaw's costume in the play:

but again this androgynous look is a stage direction from the original and isn't there as a 'shock' tactic. Wishaw carries the look very well and there is a moment in the play when he fixes Pentheus' hair which was one of the most erotic pieces of theatre I've seen this year - and again this is in the original and is not a modern reading.

All in all I enjoyed this play, I wasn't sure about the Chorus arriving in modern dress with suitcases at the very start but it won me over and I find myself unable to stop thinking about the play which is a good sign. It may yet end up in my top 10 of the year.

The one downside for me is that however accurate and good Wishaw is in his costume he did remind me of both Conchita Wurst and the guy who play Jesus in the 1970s film version of Jesus Christ: Superstar!

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