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A CurtainUp London London Review

"Women and wine - a toxic combination!" — Pentheus
Ben Whishaw as Dionysus and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus (Photo: Marc Brenner)
If the parallels of The Oresteia are about the demands of a god for obedience, to sacrifice a child, then the Bakkhai is about what happens if you deny a god. The play is also about the two sides of human nature, the instinctive, sexual and spiritual, wild side as illustrated by Dionysus (Ben Whishaw) and the rational, political, controlled side as represented by his cousin Pentheus (Bertie Carvel).

Dionysus has had his deity and his royal inheritance denied by his mortal mother Semele's three sisters Agave, Autonoe and Ino, daughters of Cadmus. Semele is killed by a jealous Hera after Zeus has made Semele pregnant. The thunderbolt that kills Semele delivers the boy Dionysus. Semele's sister Agave is Pentheus' mother. So at the beginning of the play, Dionysus takes human form to return to Thebes to seek vengeance for his mother and himself.

Ben Whishaw is this ethereal creature, full of strange circling arm movements which move his draped toga like top in curious ways. With long dark hair tied back and later wearing a long green dress, he is like a bearded woman or a Jesus figure or a rock star and is magnetically attractive to women and probably men as well.

His revenge, like the Pied Piper, is to lure the women of Thebes up into the mountains to celebrate his rites of sex and music and wine. Agave and her sisters are amongst these women. Meanwhile Pentheus is doing his utmost to counter this subculture. When he meets his grandfather Cadmus (Kevin Harvey) and the blind seer Tiresias (Ben Whishaw again) dressed as druids, he is in a business suit and every inch the politician.

As the equivalent of the Greek chorus, the women, the Bacchae, sing or speak their lines. The music is modern classical and often atonal and discordant but because of the spoken/sung combination the words have clarity. Think Philip Glass. There were moments when I thought I had stumbled into a modern opera which was not exactly to my taste. I spent much time trying to work out which of the women was Agave and failed to identify her for reasons which become apparent later in the play. Despite the slightly odd music, the acting performances of Whishaw and Carvel are mesmerizing and not to be missed.

Antony Macdonald's set is a mountainscape but with imposing, pitch black contours silhouetted in front of the bare bricks of the theatre back wall. The clothes of the Bacchae have a fawn (the baby deer not just the colour) skin and they wear headdresses made of laurels and other greenery. The women carry a thyrsus, a staff made of fennel decorated with vines and usually topped with a pinecone but after battle, the severed head of a victim.

Director James Macdonald has directed Ben Whishaw before for Mike Bartlett and the two obviously work extremely well together to allow this special actor full range in a performance I could not take my eyes off for one minute.

Poet Anne Carson's lucid version of The Bacchae is entitled Bakkhai; both are transliteration from the Greek alphabet so the spelling matters not. Later in the play she often refers to Dionysus as Bacchus, his Roman equivalent. So the Bacchae were the women followers of Bacchus or Dionysus. Carson's adaptation has words of relevance but is a modern interpretation with modern expression. Her play makes me want to see more. We may think the brutality of the Bacchae hasn't a modern parallel but we only have to think about the so-called Islamic State executions of hostages to find one.

I have never really been a fan of the Greek tragedy, and even less of any comedy, but this production of Bakkhai resonates with modern family discord, with belief systems and its issues are finely balanced between right and wrong, so it stimulates your imagination.

The Almeida under Rupert Goold has the vision of a National Theatre, happily combined with the creativity of the avant garde.

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Written by Euripides
In a new version by Anne Carson
Directed by James Macdonald

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel, Kevin Harvey
With: Amiera Dawlish, Aryhan Galieva, Eugenia Georieva, Kaisa Hammerlund, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, Belinda Sykes
Designer: Antony McDonald
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Choreography: Jonathan Burrowes, Gillie Kleiman
Sound: Paul Arditti
Musical Direction: Lindy Tennent-Brown
Running time: One hour 45 minutes with no interval
Box Office 020 7359 4404
Booking to 19th September 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th August 2015 matinee performance at the Almeida, Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1TA (Tube: The Angel)
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