Dionysus comes to London

What and where are the ethics of adaptation? It is perhaps the egotism of so many directors that leads me to groan whenever I see “adaptation” next to “Greek tragedy”. Too often translators and directors place themselves before the piece they are conceiving and somehow something is lost. The question is posed here because this is a play and adaptation that starts with a question that hangs over the whole play: “Do you believe?”

Jay Miller’s a bAcchae is based loosely – and makes no bones about – upon one of Euripides finest plays and a piece which is justly performed on a regularly basis to modern audiences. There is much to commend this production from the skillful and subtle acting of the cast to the simple but effective staging. The concept is sound: Euripides’ Bacchae is updated to a dystopian near-present which in the light of the recent London riots could be seen strangely prescient. Dionysus becomes Dio, Pentheus Peter, a Cabinet Minister, and Cadmus Caleb, his father. The rest of the core cast are cut in a slick and tight adaptation that melds original themes with ideas of causality, morality and the human need for exploration and experience. At times Miller’s eye is keenly focused on structure as with the brilliant opening prologue as Dio, a god, introduces himself to the audience. In a clever piece of theatre the actors, here played by Chris Bailey and Caroline Williams, engage the audience and then fool the audience  in a unexpected stunt which gives explanation the hold which the god increasingly has over the population. Multimedia is brought in to explain the rest of the plot background: modern Thebes become dystopian London where an inexplicable dance craze is paralysing the government as more and more people are deserting everyday life to follow the mysterious Dio.

The script by the whole company and Corinne Salisbury is well done. This is especially shown in the second scene between Peter and Caleb as they discuss the current dance craze as dinner is prepared: politics is mixed with dinner preparations and there is the hint of familial entanglements that are never quite explained or, in fact need explaining. It is a wonderfully sharp piece of writing. As their discussion goes on conflict between father and son is only hinted at between affection and warmth; the humour is underplayed but is drawn throughout scene like a golden thread: a set up for the tragedy to come.

Peter’s character is well-depicted, not entirely devoid of humanity but with a blinkered mindset that recalls the original Pentheus. His growing disdain and anger at the new Dio movement is slowly drawn out as the production moves along and Dio begins to draw him into his web. Jack Chedburn as Peter, in a performance that is reminiscent of a young James Wilby, puts on a bravura act that brings out the resentment and paranoia that the role needs.

However the star performance is undoubtedly Gerard Bell (Caleb): understated, human, believable. Whereas Dio (Chris Bailey) and Peter command the stage with belief and certainty in their own rightness, Bell becomes the audience with the roundedness of his character: to that extent he is the everyman of the play, the audience on stage if you like. It is a delightful and humane performance.

The chorus, on the other hand, seemed a little hesitant and reserved. Moreover their dance movements were a little out of sync and they never quite seemed to believe in their roles. As the production went on they gained confidence and the concepts behind the dance seemed to enter more into the spirit of the Bacchic revelry but I never quite got the feeling that these were people filled with “Bacchic madness” (as the poet says). The idea of Bacchic revelry is one that is near-impossible to convey on stage and I have some sympathy for them: it was, I think, also a fault of Alan Cumming’s Bacchae at Sadler’s Wells a few years ago. Such is the concept that actuality is far less powerful than imagination. This may be "beyond politics" as Dio says to Peter but this is not fully brought out; perhaps this is because much of what the chorus said was lost amongst other characters' monologues and the music, which was a real shame as there long periods where the audience could grasp a mood but no meaning. I also wonder why after early ideas of audience distance were broken down in the first scene, these are essentially deserted after the prologue.

The other major fault of the production – and here I speak with Classical eyes – is that it is fundamentally unbalanced. Peter meets his grisly end – “Rip his f**king head off,” Rasps the god – in a visually exciting and disturbingly shocking scene but there is no realisation of what has happened and Dio, who commands the play both as he moves around the scenes unseen by other characters but also by the force of his character, is allowed his brutal near-triumph over his rival. Dio’s own motivation is left hanging and the condemnation has to come from the audience. Perhaps it is a challenge by Miller for us to condemn him. If so, I fear he will be left wanting.  Most interestingly, the abandonment of Agave, who is subsumed into Caleb’s character, means that there is no final conflict. “Angry gods should not behave like mortal men,” Rebukes Agave after she discovers she has been tricked by the god into killing her own son. It is a sting by the most tragic of characters which fuses the play with moral ambiguity. Yes, Pentheus is hardly a sympathetic character nor many of the others but Dionysus is not either.

That said, as I wrote the final scene off as a missed opportunity, Caleb buries Peter’s head and ends the play with a poignant phone call to the son he has just murdered, still unaware that he has killed him. It is a touching, moving and bleak, if not entirely satisfying, end to the play.

The Yard is an excellent venue and Miller and his company have produced a piece of work that is filled with pace, drama and human conflict; he shows his dramatic hand by mixing music and atmospherics with brilliant slights of theatre. a bAcchae is gripping: a worthy, relevant and contemporary piece that, although it does not fully realise the potential of Greek tragedy in a modern adaptation, is nonetheless far, far better and more inventive, with more flair than what one would expect from an established director and company.

a bAcchae is showing at The Yard until 29th October 2011