This production breathes new life into the melodrama of Ancient GreeceJohnny King

“When stupid men do stupid things – sorrow follows.” It is this message that forms the heart of the Bacchae. An intense experience of madness, hatred, liberation and divinity, this modern retelling of Euripides’ tragedy breathes new life into the melodrama of Ancient Greece.

The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus (Rosy Sida), son of Zeus, the new god, the Scream. In the Greek play, he has travelled the world to inspire followers and now returns to Thebes to make himself known. Knowledge of his coming and of his power spreads through the women of Thebes, who disappear into the hills to dance and perform Bacchic rituals in his honour. Pentheus, Prince of Thebes (Ben Galvin), is horrified at their debauched behaviour. He considers these ceremonies “drink-soaked orgies” and sets out to capture the pretender god and cure the infected women of Thebes.

The play is beautifully presented, from the stage, blood-soaked with red light, to the flowing white dresses of the chorus of Bacchae. The choral interludes become powerful and haunting as the women sing beautiful melodies punctuated by dark monologues. The five dress-clad worshippers move and sing beautifully as an ensemble, their predominantly alto voices adding to the dominance the Bacchae are given as a collective. Sida as a female Dionysus is a breath of fresh air from the often-stuffy world of tragedy. Petulant and powerful, she provides both comic relief with her Vaudevillian reactions to Galvin’s icy demeanour, as well as a brooding sense of mania gone unchecked. She is a perfect foil for the righteous, stony-faced prince who hurls savage, misogynistic insults at the Bacchae, both disgusted and fascinated by their “degenerate” behaviour.

“Dionysus is a breath of fresh air from the often-stuffy world of tragedy” 

It would be easy for the play to become slow due to the sheer quantity of speech and, at an hour and forty minutes, it does start to feel a little too long. However, despite the tendency to have action described by a messenger, as is typical of Greek theatre, co-directors Amelia Hills and Russell Fancourt don’t allow this to stilt the piece. They make beautiful use of lighting and set in combination with physical theatre to create a spectacle that is as chilling as it is bewitching. Some elements aren’t quite as successful as they might be, with the challenges of the venue leading to some artistic difficulty. But for the most part, the piece is visually arresting and emotionally engaging.

It is doubtless intended as a bold statement to have Galvin be the only male actor, despite the presence of other male characters. The fact that Pentheus is so loathsome, cruel and dictatorial, would seem to present the ideal formula for a play exploring and celebrating the power of women by demonising the only man. For the majority of the play, it really works. Pentheus embodies female oppression and Dionysus allows her female followers to be free from shame and criticism. However, the play’s ending directs the audience’s sympathies in a way that contrasts its feminist statements. It almost feels as if the directors are fighting against their source material in order to make it exclusively about women when in fact it simply isn’t. It is difficult to condone aggressive editing of classical masterpieces but in this instance, I felt it would have been necessary to convey the right message. It is clear what Hills and Fancourt are trying to achieve, and they have done so masterfully, but they are cursed by the fact that Euripides did not write the Bacchae to be a feminist play.


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In a way, though, these questions over possible interpretations of the overarching message are largely irrelevant; much like the Bacchic worshippers, I found myself swept up in the madness, lost in the choral movement and voices and especially the shared hatred of Pentheus. Once I had left, however, it was as if I had awakened from a trance. This is a fantastic piece of theatre: experimental, intriguing and highly recommended.