The Bacchae in Masks

The Vervain Theatre Company specialises in putting on masked productions of ancient drama. We know that masks were a central feature of ancient Greek drama; the main intention of Vervain's productions is to investigate how those masks might actually have worked in practice. Other aspects of the production are secondary, and that's fair enough.

For their latest production at Theatro Technis in London, Vervain have attempted Euripides' emotionally intense masterpiece The Bacchae. This is a play often put on stage, because of its familiarity in the minds of the potential audience, but it is, like Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, a challenging text that can undermine the unwary.

One of the hardest things to get right is Dionysus' seduction of the Theban king Pentheus. The two have been violent antagonists throughout the play, and then suddenly Pentheus allows himself to be led into Dionysus' ideas for viewing the Maenads at their rituals, an act that leads directly to his destruction. It is difficult to make this switch psychologically convincing to a twenty-first century audience - even the 2008 National Theatre of Scotland production starring Alan Cumming had a problem here. Vervain's production doesn't make a bad job of this, largely through implying that there is a magic trick that Dionysus has pulled - he flicks a switch in Pentheus' brain, and the king is his.

The use of masks is not wholly successful. Part of the problem is that masks were designed for perfomance in large open-air theatres. Audiences at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens could reach 17,000, and someone seated at the back was a long way from the stage. In Theatro Technis, the audience is never more than about twenty feet from the stage. This changes the engagement between actor and audience. A mask makes one inevitably act in a more physical way, using one's body to express the emotions that cannot be communicated through the face. When one is close to the performers, this can look excessively mannered, as it often does in Alexander Pett's Dionysus. On the other hand, Joanna Howden's perfomance as Teiresias has got this down pat, expressing the aged seers unbending and embrace of the rejuvenating powers of Bacchic revels through the literal unclenching of feet and hands.

One advantage of masks is that it does allow the members of the cast to also fulfil the roles of the Chorus, something occasionally attempted with less success by unmasked productions. (In the recent Barbican production of Antigone, it was very odd to see Ismene be led off to prison, only to immediately come back on stage as a Chorus member, without even a change of costume.) This production choreographed that well, and it was rare that I noticed a Chrous member slipping away to re-enter as someone else. Separate masks for Dionysus as god and as man were an effective way of conveying the transformation, though the final embodiment of Dionysus' deus ex machina speech by three actors speaking in unison seemed a bit baroque, having more to do with primitivist beliefs in the triple nature of divinity than with anything that might have been presented on an ancient Athenian stage.

I also had a problem with the translation. Philip Vellacott's Penguin was used. I've never been much of a Vellacott fan myself, and his Bacchae translation, while revised in 1973, was originally produced in 1954, and was then already the product of a quite traditional scholar (Vellacott became more iconoclastic in his later years, but by then his Penguin translations of Aeschylus and Euripides were behind him). It seems to me that it robs the text of a lot of its power, and perhaps a twenty-first century translation would have been better.

I feel that the work of the Vervain Theatre company is very important - we need to continue experimenting with masks and seeing how they worked. But in this particular instance, the result didn't work for me as theatre. It is by no means impossible for masked theatre to succeed in a modern context - I think of the 2000 production of John Barton's Tantalus cycle of modern plays on the Trojan War, which employed masks to devastating effect, especially when they were removed. But perhaps masks need a larger context than Theatro Technis can provide.

Dr Tony Keen blogs at Memorabilia Antonina.