FringeReview UK 2016
Conor Baum looks like Jesus Christ.
Not your average Jesus, though – instead, think of El Greco’s paintings of Christ. Lean, narrow face, prominent cheekbones, long hair and intensely staring eyes that seem to reach right into your soul.
Except that Baum is playing another god entirely – the Greek god Dionysus, god of wine and of ecstatic dance. So he’s dressed in a thin brown shift, slit to the thigh and leaving his chest bare. Slim body, with slender arms that look preternaturally long as he gestures with them. Hair very long, almost to his waist, and shimmering facial makeup that gives him the look of a bronze statue.
Like a proper God, our first sight of him is up above. Edd Berridge’s innovative direction had stripped all the seating out of the auditorium at 88 London Road, leaving the stepped wooden rake completely bare. The audience stood in what is normally the acting space, waiting for the performance to begin – and then suddenly there was Dionysus, high over us at the top of the rake, his figure lit by powerful backlights as he stepped down to give us his opening lines –
I’m back “
Euripedes’ play is about the god Dionysus, whose father Zeus had impregnated Semele, a princess of Thebes. Later Zeus was tricked into revealing himself to her undisguised – as a thunderbolt – and Semele was blasted to death. Zeus took the foetus from the corpse, protected it, and raised the infant to become a god. Now Dionysus has returned to Thebes, to the place of his conception, but where the people do not accept his story of his origin.
Gods are jealous, though, and demand respect. Since they deny his divinity and won’t worship him, Dionysus has driven the women of Thebes into a trance, and they’ve left the city for nearby Mount Kithairon. On the mountain they’ve given up their robes to dress in soft deerskins, and they spend their days in an ecstatic orgy of dancing, wine and sex.
‘The Bacchae’ has a Chorus of these women followers of Dionysus, and Brief Hiatus gave us eight women – clad just in beige underwear, not particularly skimpy, which could pass for the skins of fawns, but also sometimes left the impression that they were completely naked as they cavorted up and down the wooden seating rake. They wore pink balaklava hoods, too – just their eyes and mouth showing, rendering them anonymous and recalling the masks worn by the Chorus in classic Greek theatre.
Semi-naked women are timeless, of course, but the rest of the production seemed to be set more in the present. We first met Kadmos, the ex-king of Thebes, along with Teiresias, the blind prophet, two old men dressed in short white towelling dressing gowns, garlanded as they prepared to join the Bacchae women in worship of Dionysus. Later, we saw them both dressed in modern suits. Teiresias, sightless, was in modern dark glasses throughout, while Seth Morgan as Kadmos, with his high forehead and long white beard (his own) looked disconcertingly like Charles Darwin.
When Pentheus, the current Theban king, arrived, he too was dressed in a contemporary formal business suit. Pentheus is a younger man, dynamic and loudly opinionated, and he’s angry. Jordan Hiscott played him as rigidly unbending, unable to accept that the new arrival might actually be a god, seeing Dionysis only as a threat to public order that he is determined to crush. Allan Cardew put years onto his actual age to make Teiresias both pleading (as an old man) and yet magisterial in his warning to the king. As a prophet, he can see that Pentheus has no inkling of the divine force that he is up against.
Poor Pentheus, you will bring
Pain to us. I am a blind man,
A prophet. But what I see now
Takes no skills, no prophesy.
When stupid men say stupid things
When I mentioned Jesus Christ at the start of this review, it wasn’t just because of any visual likeness. The essence of ‘The Bacchae’ is the collision of two philosophies – the rational physical world of King Pentheus, opposed to the abandonment of self to the mystical, ecstatic world offered by Dionysus. But when Pentheus has Dionysus in custody, and is interrogating him, in my mind I kept seeing Christ being questioned by Pontias Pilate. The Son of a powerful God, born to a virgin, who has returned from wanderings with a new message, and wants to reclaim ‘his kingdom’. He’s seen as a threat to the existing authority, which wants to destroy him. Sound familiar?
The colour of the lighting and the movement of the dancers produced a ravishing visual spectacle, but Edd Berridge’s direction and Conor Baum’s music choices made the production work brilliantly on another level as well. When the women were dancing and singing on the theatre rake, it was to a soundtrack of rock music which I initially thought rather inappropriate. It almost felt like I was watching ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
(Him again …)
But the end of the play gets very dark. Dionysus has caused Pentheus’ mother, Agave, and the rest of the women, to tear her son limb from limb and devour his flesh raw. The killing itself was done in a splash of red light, high up on the rake, and the women emerged from the melee with their limbs and costumes covered in convincing looking blood. Agave herself carried Pentheus’s head back to Thebes in triumph, and was devastated when she finally came out of her trance and realised the enormity of what she’d done. Rosanna Bini’s transformation from ecstasy to horror was as heartrending as it was powerful.
Dionysus is very clear about why he’s done this –
“Pentheus mocked my divinity”
“You denied me – I was yours – new,
A god – and you denied me”
Gods are jealous. Gods are unforgiving. Gods are harsh.
Pentheus never had any conception of the force that he was up against – he thought he was dealing with some rather effeminate charlatan.
And that, for me, is one of the great strengths of this production – at the beginning we thought we were seeing something a bit lightweight, and only realised further in that this was a very serious production indeed. We were wrongfooted – just like Pentheus.
Brief Hiatus specialise in minimal staging, and this was about as minimal as it gets. I’ve already mentioned the completely bare audience rake, but there’s a section where the Bacchae are in the waters of a river. For this, the eight women simply unrolled a long length of blue silk, holding it above their heads with an undulating motion while the river flowed, and then in an instant it was gone, folded away and hidden. Simple and beautiful.
All the other male roles, messengers, guards, servants, were given us by Robert Cohen, all military gruffness in a modern jacket and trousers, and Scott Roberts in a boiler suit. Great characterization, even of minor roles. Roberts’ report to Pentheus about the frenzy of the women on the mountain is written in the style of Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ – but his rendering was neither rude – “Don’t worry, I saw nothing I shouldn’t have” – nor in the least bit mechanical.
Often a rating of ‘Outstanding’ means that a production was very, very good. Occasionally it means it was unforgettable. ‘The Bacchae’ is one of those times.