Brighton Festival 2023
How do you retell a Greek myth in a way that makes it relevant to the Climate Emergency? What can the two possibly have in common? One’s about Gods, and ecstasy, and madness – the other is about global warming.
The link, the common theme, is hubris – a wonderful Greek word meaning arrogance or over-confidence, usually before a fall …
In Euripedes’ play ‘The Bacchae’, the god Dionysus arrives in Thebes, ready to punish the city for not believing in his divinity. Rather than attempting to placate the immortal, or reason with him, the Theban king Pentheus dismisses him as an imposter, just some uppity foreigner trying to cause unrest. But of course Dionysus really is a God, though the king is too blind to see it, and that refusal to face reality costs Pentheus his life. Dionysus causes all the women to be possessed by his spirit, and they leave the city to become Bacchae, dancing ecstatically on the mountain, tearing cattle to pieces with their bare hands when they go berserk. Finally they tear Pentheus to pieces, too, and the play ends with his mother sitting cradling the king’s butchered head in her lap.
We aren’t faced with a vengeful God – but our civilisation continues to act as though our planet’s resources are inexhaustible. We all find it convenient to deny the obvious – everyone wants to live a comfortable life – but the problem is made much worse through the actions of our multi-national corporations. Burn more fossil fuel – for Profit! Cut down the forests – for Profit! Over-fish the oceans – for Profit! Deplete the water resources – for Profit! And what do the heads of our Corporations tell us? “If we fuck up the planet – there’s always Mars …”
We have the power to do exactly what we want … but where’s it going to end?
Hopefully, not in the fenced-in reservation of this ThirdSpace production. It’s actually an outdoor basketball court at the Crew Club, with high sides constructed from blue-painted steel mesh. We were told that it’s some kind of refuge and water source – but to me it felt ominously like an internment camp …
For this is the future – our future. Global warming has taken hold and water wars are everywhere. As we sat down a young man carried someone in screaming “He needs water – pure water!”. As a bottle was provided, and as the victim began to recover, we could see that there were three groups of people occupying the space.
At one end of the enclosure was a group of around a dozen young people, all dressed in grey – loose fitting trousers and cargo pants, fleece tops and hoodies. They were the Tribe of Apollo. At the other end, near where we’d come in, was a similar group, though this time all dressed in black. They acted much more menacingly as they were the Tribe of Athena, and the warlike goddess herself stood tall in their centre, spear (well a pole actually) held high. And between them, in the middle, dressed in sand-coloured versions of the same type of clothing, sat the Tribe of Dionysus.
These are the different tribes that the young people have been drawn to band together in for mutual support in the face of climate disaster, and they have different responses. The Apollo people seem resigned to their fate, accept the end of things, and spend their time with empty philosophical questions. The Athena tribe, by contrast, are determined to fight for their freedom against the onslaught of the Corporations.
Two different responses to their situation – but the Dionysus tribe have transcended all this and they have a third vision. “It’s the last day of Spring!” they shout, “Dionysus WILL come! – we must go to the Hill!”
Angela El-Zeind’s costume designs made these tribes look rather like something out of ‘Dune’ or ‘Mad Max’ – but watching us menacingly from outside the enclosure were the agents of The Corporations, all of them in dark suits with white shirts and black ties. Dark glasses, too, like the characters from ‘Reservoir Dogs’. They had their boss standing alongside them: Pentheus, similarly dressed, but with a red tie. Like in pantomime, we knew immediately that these guys were the baddies – a loudspeaker announced that the camp would be cleared “For your own protection” and they donned cat masks – ‘fat cats’ come to life in front of us. They chanted corporate-speak too – “We have nothing to hide – behind us are lawyers, not lies.”
‘Bakkhai’ was directed by ThirdSpace’s Artistic Director Tanushka Marah, along with Nicola Chambers and Zoë Alexander. The production has an enormous cast, so as well as ThirdSpace, actors from Brighton People’s Theatre also took part, with their Director Jack Parris. There’s so much talent in Brighton! Much of the plotting and writing was done in conjunction with a core team of young writers, and many of the ideas came out from the young people in the rehearsal room during improvisations.
As well as setting this version in the future, they’ve altered the story to give us Pentheus’s sister Agave, rather than his mother as in the original. Clever, because this allows us to see the rifts that occur within families when members have different visions of how things are – her own family can’t see the problems, and so Agave has come to join the tribes. Pentheus tries to tempt his sister back – offers Agave delicious figs, that they don’t have in the enclosure, and tries to persuade her that she’s only there because she’s vulnerable. He’s gaslighting her. As the corporations are doing to us.
When Dionysus arrives, the God initially appears in the form of a man, red-haired and bearded, in a brilliantly white suit. Later, though, Dionysus takes on female form, clad in a silvery overskirt and a black and white striped top. Hair divided into dark and light halves too – emphasising the dual nature of the God’s sexuality.
As well as the groups I’ve already mentioned, there was a team – a kind of black-clad Greek chorus, really, of Crows – who summarised the events for us from time to time, and moved us from space to space to follow the action. So we trailed the male Dionysus and the Tribe of Apollo to an adjacent court, to a long table setting that brought to mind Renaissance paintings of The Last Supper, with the white-suited figure in place of Christ.
The Corporate agents under Pentheus make good their threats, and take the Apollo people into custody. The scene looked like the internment camp at Guantanamo Bay, with Corporate guards standing over kneeling prisoners. The only difference was that these victims were clad in grey, not orange … But – the guards in turn are defeated by Athena’s tribe and Dionysus’s female followers, who storm the location. By this time the God has taken on female form, and urges the women to kill all the members of the Corporate group. (Which they do – poetic justice, Eh? Remember, too, that Gods can often be very cruel …). There’s some dramatically expressive dancing by the Bakkhai, and we were hugely impressed by the energy of these young people.
But as powerful as that scene was, it was totally eclipsed by the finale. We followed the Crows out of the Crew Club enclosure, and to the foot of a steep grass-covered slope where the Bakkhai did their ecstatic dancing. Not just the tribe of followers we’d seen earlier, though – now they were joined by dozens more Bakkhai devotees of Dionysus – dancers from Ceyda Tanc Dance, all clad in their sand-coloured costumes. This is a contemporary dance company led by Ceyda Tanc, and together the groups provided a huge circle of movement, around thirty strong.
In fact, the whole production was a collaboration of different companies – in total there were about eighty performers, and we mustn’t forget the vastly competent technical crew, who had to set up radio mics and speakers at various locations in the open air.
The sweeping, rhythmic movement of the dancers was counterpointed by dozens of other actors from the Tribes – some waving large red flags, some with coloured smoke flares, stationed all the way up the slope, the highest of them hundreds of feet above us. A truly amazing experience – I was equally blown away by the artistry of the spectacle, the commitment and talent of all the actors and technical people, and the sheer chutzpah involved in staging an event so complex. I truly have never seen anything like it.
At the end, as in Euripides’ play, the ecstatically dancing Bakkhai converge on Pentheus and he disappears beneath a mass of bodies, as strips of red mottled cloth are flung skywards from the melee. His fate is obvious, and very visual, and later Agave leaves the group and ascends the slope carrying what looks like a bloodied head trailing viscera. In her state of ecstatic abandonment she’d thought she’d killed a mountain lion – only when her vision eventually clears does she realise she’s holding her brother’s head in her lap.
Hubris – pride and over-confidence before a fall. And a refusal to face facts. Euripides saw it two and a half thousand years ago – this production takes it some years into the future. If you didn’t see the show, you missed something really profound. If you did see it, you’ll have memories that will stay with you for a very long time.