Friday, September 11, 2015

Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, London

Performance seen: 7 September 2015

There was a moment in the Almeida's rather fine production of Euripides' Bakkhai (that is the transliteration that they use) where I realised that the cheeky buggers were doing this as a three-actor production, as it was originally written in the fifth century BC. And extremely effective it was too. Never again will I say that three actors require the use of masks - instead it just requires clever use of costuming, make-up, accents and lighting. Most impressive in this respect was Ben Wishaw's performance as the Messenger (a role that I suspect in the original production would actually have gone to the third actor, the one playing Cadmus and the Herdsman, rather than to the protagonist, the actor playing Dionysus and Teiresias). Through keeping his face away from the audience except when at the back of the stage, when his face was partially distorted by smoke, Wishaw almost had me believing that there was another actor in the cast - and one of my companions didn't realise that only three actors were used (besides those playing the Chorus) until only three came out for the curtain call. 

Wishaw gives an excellent performance. I had wondered whether he might have been more appropriately cast as Pentheus, but that, I think, was because I had seen him being extraordinary in the role of Richard II in The Hollow Crown on television, a role that has more than a little of Pentheus in it. He carries off Dionysus with style, in a performance that emphasises the character's divinity, rather than, as Alan Cumming did, his sexual ambivalence. Having played Richard II as Jesus, we now get Wishaw doing Dionysus as Jesus. Presumably someday he will be allowed to actually play Jesus.

As well as praising Wishaw, I must mention Bertie Carvel, excellent as Pentheus and his mother Agave. He is deliberately unconvincing as Pentheus dressed as a woman, but much more convincing as Agave.

However, what first won me over to this production was the Chorus, which is one of the best Choruses I've seen in a long while, certainly for this play. It benefitted greatly from the presence of professional singers. They all harmonise well, yet each individual can be heard clearly. And I like Anne Carson's text very much.

If there's a complaint to be made, it's that the production doesn't quite convey the full horror of the play's concluding moments. But that may partly because I've seen so many productions that I'm inured to the dismembered corpse by now.

I've been left a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the big tragedy productions of the past year - the Old Vic's Electra with Kristen Scott Thomas, the National's Medea with Helen McCrory, the Barbican's Antigone with Juliet Binoche. But the Almeida has delivered the most innovative and compelling Oresteia I've ever seen, and now a far more conventional, but still superior Bakkhai. I'm very impressed.

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