To call Greek tragedies ‘timeless’ is a cliché that shames every reviewer of Greek tragedies; but it’s hard to argue that the clash between order and chaos, good and evil never goes out of fashion. Unlike some of Euripides’ works, there’s no need to put a topical gloss on the Bacchae by transporting it into some familiar modern setting; the packaging can do nothing to diminish the power of the message. That might be why it has been staged, reinterpreted and repackaged so many times.
Bacchae, set in that familiar home of deaths foretold, Thebes, tells the story of Dionysus taking a bloody revenge on King Pentheus for refusing to acknowledge his divinity and launching a totalitarian crackdown on the cult of Dionysus. Dionysus is in some ways the most interesting god in the Greek pantheon: weird, exotic and multifaceted. His wildness can be the occasion for drunken partying or – as in this case – horrific savagery. And then there’s Dionysus as patron of the theatre. Bacchae was originally performed at the City Dionysia festival and in the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, so there’s plenty of scope for self-consciousness in how the god is portrayed here on stage.
The play, too is fascinating: unlike most tragedies, where the gods remain on the skene, or background scene building, and literally look down on the proceedings in aloof detachment, here Dionysus is the lead character and even gets arrested by Pentheus’ henchmen, before effortlessly escaping and causing an earthquake that buries the royal palace.
When University College London last put on Euripides as their annual, student-led Classical play – 2013’s Trojan Women – the action was transported to the Pacific in the Second World War, with the Trojan women prisoners of the Japanese. By contrast, this production (directed by UCL English student Emily Louizou and produced by classicist Hayley Russell) could be set anytime, anywhere. Anywhere with an overpowering sense of menace, that is.
The scene is a stark, brutalist landscape (which doesn’t really resemble a forest, whatever Louizou says in her programme notes, but no matter) with untidy piles of old car tyres strewn about and a black scaffold and staircase providing the skene. Set designer Avra Alevropoulou and lighting designer Kieran Doyle have done well under Louizou to produce a fitting backdrop to the terrifying story, with the colours changing for every scene. That could be gimmicky, but in this fast-paced and action-packed play, it works.
For me, the two most effective roles in this production were the chorus of Maenads and Pentheus, played by Classics student Adam Woolley. From their first entrance, the Maenads are menacing and athletic, yet far from this effect wearing off, it ratchets up with every successive appearance, aided by the lighting (turning blood red as the hour of Pentheus’ grisly fate draws near), the boisterous chanting and the dancers’ slick moves, recalling in their scuttling malevolence the spider walking of the Exorcist franchise. Choruses can find themselves at a loose end in student productions; this one is anything but. The music has been specially composed for this staging by David Denyer (an outsider from the Royal College of Music). It’s polished and haunting, worth every penny that they’re (almost certainly not) paying him.
Woolley’s flame-haired Pentheus, sparkling in a spangly scarlet suit like a video game villain, is supremely self-confident, sneering as he orders Dionysus to be arrested and locked up. Later, driven mad and induced to dress as a woman by the god, he cuts a pathetic figure, gibbering in a sarong and headdress. His mother Agave, played by Charlotte Holtum, is powerful as the shrieking Maenad driven insane and doomed to kill her son. If I have one problem with this well-executed production, it’s the central character, Dionysus himself. Is he smug and contented, or is he angry and shaken by the king’s hubris? I was never quite sure which facet of the god I was meant to be looking at. A minor gripe is James Morwood’s translation, which isn’t quite punchy or vernacular enough to keep pace with this muscular staging. But there was enough right with UCL’s Bacchae to make it well worth a visit.
Euripides’ Bacchae, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 10-12 February 2015