first night

The Bacchae

Carrie Gaunt reviews some Greek Tragedy with HCTC's 'The Bacchae


Done properly, Euripides' grim fable The Bacchae should be pyrotechnic - a whirling dervish of sex and violence that makes up in sheer animal magnetism for what it lacks in subtlety. This is melodrama on a grand scale, infinitely more exciting and shocking than any more modern pieces (no spoilers, but I will say it's not for the faint-hearted). HCTC's production, although its heart is in the right place, lacks the potency, which should drive the performance and unfortunately comes across as slightly half-baked.

The Bacchae pivots on its eponymous frenzied heroines, and in this case I feel that the production was something of a missed opportunity for the seven-strong chorus. The bacchae simply didn't have the requisite energy for women who are drunk on religious fervour. In all fairness, I feel that the set must bear some of the responsibility for this. The tiered arrangement, theoretically, worked well in adding height to the apron, but meant that each bacchant had only a limited (and rather wobbly-looking) space in which to move. As a consequence, their movements around the stage were stifled and timid, precluding the sense of wildness which is so intrinsic to the play as a whole. Characterisation, too, was slightly lacking. The bacchae can afford to be staring-eyed, hysterical depictions of madness: this production was surprisingly languid, with the one concession to hysteria the odd hiss or giggle. As it was, the bacchae came across as plaintive rather than furious, and I missed the fervour that forces them into acts of unspeakable brutality. Jolanda Grijsptra, leading the chorus, is, however, a notable exception, coming closest to encapsulating the true blood-thirstiness of the devotees of Dionysis.

Andrew Shires' Dionysis is suitably machiavellian and mischievous but where I think he falls down is in showing us his more malevolent and darkly powerful side. Shires could, I believe, go further in demonstrating his all-consuming anger at being spurned by Pentheus - I would have liked to have seen him inspire more fear. After all, Dionysis is at great pains to point out that he's in charge around here, thank you very much, and just a little more sense of perogative would have worked wonders in teasing out a slightly darker characterisation. The production boasts excellent performances from Jake Goldman, as Cadmus, and Joe Kelen's Messenger, whose dynamic retelling of the horrifying scenes of violence he has witnessed was charismatic and captivating. I would, however, strongly advise the cast against excessive shouting. Extra volume does not = extra drama. A well timed shout can be chilling and exciting, but tonal variation is paramount, particularly in classical Greek theatre where the language is so archaic that there is already a danger of isolating the audience from the outset.

Aesthetically the production is confused and unfortunately the lack of coherence in costumes leads to a somewhat messy appearance. Cadmus and Tiresias, draped in feather boas and rainbow flower garlands and jarring grindingly with the classically-attired bacchae, looked for all the world as if they'd just been on a lads' holiday to Ibiza. In terms of staging, the action was largely concentrated on the apron - I can understand the motivations behind this (an increased sense of intimacy) but I did feel frustrated that the actors weren't being allowed to use more of the stage and that the apron, already housing the bacchae's stage-within-a-stage arrangement, became progressively more and more crowded and uncomfortable as the performance drew on.

There are nods to a more unconventional use of the proscenium arch space in this production - having the bacchae seated among the audience, for example - and I feel that this was a postive move that directors Emma Grisdale and Sophie Wright could have been bolder with. More committment to filling the space around them would have worked wonders in creating a more chilling, immersive and energetic atmosphere. By all means break the fourth wall, but only if you're planning to use the audience as an integral part of your performance - I got one particularly hard stare from a bacchant, but that was the extent of my involvement, and I found this disappointing when the beginning promised something more interactive. The production is, however, a real tour-de-force when it comes to lighting and Kacey Courtney has truly outdone herself in the sheer variety of lighting designs on offer here. I particularly enjoyed the slow reveal of the blood-soaked bacchae; a wonderfully haunting moment which genuinely sent a chill down my spine.

HCTC's The Bacchae does not quite reach its peak, and whilst reaching the dramatic heights of this play requires a frankly exhausting injection of visceral energy, I still feel that both cast and crew can afford to be braver with the material they've been given. After all, Euripedes pulls no punches, so don't treat him with kid gloves: embrace the madness.


1 May 2015

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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