first night

The Bacchae

The Bacchae's whirlwind of energy leaves Ben Weaver Hincks thrilled but never moved.

 The Bacchae was as old in Jesus’ time as Hamlet is in ours. However, it is not a story so purely archetypal that it cannot be made relatable; indeed, for it to work as tragedy, it must be. Castle Theatre Company’s production, whilst visually and aurally exciting, somewhat fails to bridge this gap.

The play’s poster had me in mind of something by Stephanie Meyer, and whilst I was therefore relieved not to find a horde of hirsute maenads howling at the moon, the Hollywood influences are clear from the start. Director David Knowles’s production seems to aim for a sort of cinematic energy that is primarily stimulating, even at the cost of dramatic subtlety.

For a play that relies so heavily on monologues, theatre-in-the-round is a brave choice of staging. Whilst the contrast between the intimacy of audience and stage and the vastness of the Great Hall suggests the tragic insignificance of man, the actors are left very exposed, highlighting the lack of polish. Nonetheless, the use of space and the basic staging are for the most part effective, as are the simple costumes. Not quite understanding the current fad for tragedies performed in evening wear, I’m liable to groan at the sight of an out-of-context bowtie. Susie Elks’s tattered and ivy-covered costumes, however, tell of characters from a past age, risen from their graves or the pages of history. They are not fantastically original, but they support the general aesthetic, and contribute to the theme of moral decay that some have pointed to in Euripides’s tragedy.

Quite possibly the highlight of the production is the ethereal music that descends from the gallery and fills the whole hall, performed exquisitely by choir and strings. The new compositions by Ben Rowarth are skilfully matched to the production, and work well alongside Tavener’s more familiar minimalism. The adoption of modal harmonies, and dissonances perfectly timed to the mood of the play, give Euripides’s script a worthy soundtrack.

Unfortunately, the performances on the stage do not quite match those on the gallery. Rory Quinn as Dionysus, who opens the show, puts in a varied performance; he starts stutteringly, stumbling over one or two lines, which could not go unnoticed in the setting. Not without charisma, his performance beyond this is nonetheless more Disney-evil than diabolical. He certainly has the voice to command attention when he chooses to use it, and there are strong moments, but a lack of consistency leaves his character without a clear motive.

While all actors are competent and considered, many of them fail to articulate the horror of their lines. Agive’s delivery of “I see the greatest grief there is” seems an inadequate response from a mother who finds herself guilty of filicide, and by no means was she the only one to fall short. Two who do not, however, are Joe Burke as Pentheus and Fergus Leathem as Cadmus. Burke is by far the most naturalistic of the actors, utilising his face and eyes as much as his voice and gestures. Leathem, too, puts in an understated and unostentatious performance, with a consistency and control that others failed to equal.

The Bacchae themselves are a formidable chorus. Although they work mostly in unison, each individual has developed particular tics and gestures and it is clear that effort in characterisation went beyond the named parts. Their choreographed routines are effective too, if not greatly original. The balletic concept however, is never quite realised, perhaps owing to the lack of space, and the result is a little rough around the edges.

If the play has a central failing it was its overstatement, and a consequent lack of subtlety, both in performance and production.  At times however, this overstatement is welcome. As Dionysus calls from prison to his Maenads, the music, his shadow on the wall, and the clap of thunder that seems to shake the foundations of the Great Hall, all create superbly immersive and powerful theatre. However, elsewhere, the tragedy has a tendency to descend into comedy. The cross-dressing scene, for instance, drew cheap laughs rather than highlighting the disturbing madness of Pentheus. Written by Euripides in his final period of despair; it is utterly soul-destroying. And yet, during the play’s excruciating climax, there is a temptation to laugh.

At the end of the play, all that remains on the stage is a sack supposedly holding the butchered remains of Pentheus. Unfortunately, however, it has less the appearance of a corpse than a sack of potatoes. It seemed a surreal but apt metaphor for the evening: a great staple, but in need of some more ingredients.

Despite its recent popularity, few professional productions have truly succeeded in finding the right tone for The Bacchae, and so it is perhaps unfair to expect so much of a student performance. As one recent critic wrote: like most orgies, it works better in theory than in practice. But when you set yourself high standards, you must to be judged by them. I left feeling impressed; I wanted to leave feeling despair

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Ben Weaver Hincks



23 November 2011

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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