Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith
Performance seen: 19 September 2007
The horror of the final denouement, as Agave comes on stage bearing the head of her son Pentheus, whom she and her sisters have torn apart, is unsurpassed. This horror is heightened because of its inevitability. The audience knows that Pentheus' destruction is inescapable, because Dionysus, whose true identity only the audience knows, has told them.
But it is also a funny play. There is a deep level of irony, as Dionysus warns Pentheus that (to paraphrase) 'if you insult me you insult the god.' Pentheus takes it metaphorically, but Dionysus means it literally. And when Pentheus is dressed as a Maenad, the audience is clearly meant to laugh. This laughter, as Pentheus can be seen walking into the trap, heightens the horror.
Bacchae is a very intertextual play, putting on stage the god who was already placed in the theatre in wooden statue form. Reference to earlier plays can be seen – Tiresias, for instance, appears fixed in the 'old man' persona that Sophocles had made famous in the Antigone and Oedipus, despite the fact that Bacchae takes place generations earlier. And it was probably influential from even before it was performed. When Aristophanes premiered his Euripidean tribute/parody Frogs in January of 405 BC, he made Dionysus lead character. Though Bacchae was not produced until later, probably in March of the same year, coincidence seems unlikely. Aristophanes might have seen the text found amongst Euripides’ papers after his death in 406.
That influence of Bacchae echoes down the ages. It seems to have influenced some accounts of the death of Orpheus, in which the poet is torn apart by Maenads at Dionysus’ instigation (though in others, such as Ovid, Bacchus punishes those responsible); like Pentheus, all that is left of Orpheus is his head.* Anthony Shaffer must surely have been thinking of the play when he wrote The Wicker Man, in which the upright and rational Sergeant Howie is entwined in the schemes of Dionysiac pagans, and part of the trap involves dressing Howie in clothes appropriate to the pagan celebration.
The National Theatre of Scotland's production, directed by John Tiffany and starring Alan Cumming as Dionysus, comes to Hammersmith laden with expectation, having been the hit of the Edinburgh International Festival. By and large, I think it lives up to those expectations, though it does have something of the curate's egg about it. In many ways, it's a fairly traditional approach. The play's Theban setting is retained, rather than a modern relocation, though the production is in some ways very Scottish – Tony Curran's Pentheus belongs to the line of Glasgow hardmen that James Cosmo and Billy Connolly have played so successfully on screen. The idea of Dionysus as rock star is not particularly novel – I saw it used in a production of Frogs back in 1996. And the androgyny of the god is inherent in his origin myth.
Central to this version, of course, is Cumming's performance. He enters in a deus ex machina brought to the beginning of the play, with his bare arse forming one of the play's main talking points. The night I saw the play, he seemed to be suffering from a cold, and sounded flat in his first song. Nevertheless, his sheer exuberance carries the play along well, together with some impressive special effects (one of which threatens to give you sunburn), and I found it impossible not to have a big grin on my face through much of the play.
The Chorus are portrayed as a group of black women, clad in red, singing and dancing across the stage. They are also made into more active participants in the play. They are not just Dionysus' audience and fan club. They know who he is (which in Euripides' text they do not), and Dionysus disguises them as Theban functionaries, to help him weave his web around Pentheus (the Times reviewer found this distracting, but I think that's unfair). I always intrinsically approve of a staging that restores music and movement to the Chorus (though at least one production has done this in a manner that actually put me off), and I thought the choreography and harmonizing effective and exciting (even if it did remind me of Return to the Forbidden Planet at times). The connection with gospel music highlights (if not, perhaps, deliberately), that the Chorus, and indeed Greek tragedy as a whole, emerged from religious ceremony.
I also like that not only the Chorus sing, but both Dionysus and Pentheus get musical numbers (and Cadmus and Tiresias do a little bit of soft-shoe shuffle). Arias were an important part of Euripidean tragedy. They are difficult to do in a modern production, and it’s nice to see someone try.
For me, the weakness comes at the end of the play (an opinion shared by a number of friends who've seen it). Previous productions I've seen (such as Peter Hall's at the National Theatre in 2002) have tended to play down the comedy. This staging plays that up, which causes problems on the transition to the horror of the end (not helped by bringing Pentheus' remains on stage in a bin bag). Not until Paola Dionisotti's Agave finally realizes what she holds in her hands does the right emotional pitch get hit, and silence descends on the auditorium. And then Cumming comes back on and slightly spoils it all.
So splendid as the god in human disguise, he can't quite carry off the god as god, despite a bank of bright spotlights behind him (though it surprised me that there isn't a costume change to underline the change in status). Instead, he comes across as a petulant child. Faced with Cadmus and Agave’s reasonable statements that the punishment they have received does not fit their crime, Dionysus says that it's not his fault, it's theirs, it serves them right, anyway Zeus approved his plans - he does absolutely anything rather than accept any personal responsibility. This is explicit in Greig's translation - what Euripides intended is hard to divine, as the text is defective at this point, but I suspect he may have intended to convey more of a sense that justice of a sort has been done (compare the end of the Hippolytus). Cadmus (Ewan Hooper), on the other hand, emerges as the only character with his dignity intact.
Despite my qualms, however, this remains a memorable production of a memorable play.
* Edit 21/09/07: A little extra reading shows that this is wrong. Orpheus’ death at the hands of Maenads inspired by Dionysus featured in Aeschylus' lost Bassarae, and so that legend may have influenced the depiction of Pentheus' death, which is not attested in literature before Euripides.