‘Bakkhai’: Theater Review

Marc Brenner
Ben Whishaw gives good hedonism in this musically lush but emotionally remote tragedy.

James Bond co-star Ben Whishaw plays a seductive, vengeful, sexually ambivalent god of pleasure in this new version of the ancient Greek classic by Euripides.

A cross-dressing, gender-bending, musically rich take on an ancient Greek classic, Bakkhai is outwardly audacious but ultimately respectful to its 2400-year-old source material. The final work of Athenian playwright Euripides, The Bacchae (as the title is more usually rendered) dramatizes the eternal tensions between cerebral and sensual, male and female, Dionysian and Apollonian. It was first performed in 405 BC and has remained a standard text ever since, inspiring stage, screen and operatic settings by Ingmar Bergman, Brian de Palma, Joe Orton, Philip Glass and countless others. 

Euripides conceived Bakkhai almost like a superhero origin story for the Dionysian mystery cult, which was firmly established in Greece by the time he was writing. Willowy Brit Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Paddington) stars as Dionysos, the god of wine, ecstasy and ritualized madness. But like all Greek deities, he also has his human side, notably an outsized appetite for cruelty and revenge. In this new translation by Anne Carson, part of the Almeida theater's ongoing season of modernized Greek tragedies, the original poster boy for sex, drugs and rock’n’roll is a true party monster.

Carson and director James Macdonald update the play’s language and dress, but keep the plot and setting largely intact. In line with classical Greek tradition, their production features three core cast members in multiple roles, with face paint standing in for full masks, and a minimalist stage backed up against the Almeida’s exposed brick walls. This is ancient theater with a modern sensibility and a dash of movie-star glamor thanks to Whishaw, which helps explain why its seven-week run in this 325-seater venue is already heavily booked out. Even so, Bakkhai still feels a little too esoteric in style and emotionally aloof in tone to make the leap to a larger West End or Broadway stage.

Dionysos (Whishaw) arrives in the city of Thebes vowing vengeance against those who deny his godlike status as the offspring of a divine father Zeus and human mother Semele. His prime target is his own cousin, King Pentheus (Bertie Carvel), a business-suited autocrat who is struggling to keep a Freudian lid on the orgiastic revels of crazed, wine-fuelled hedonism that Dionysos has unleashed across the city. But the stranger’s cult of unbridled pleasure only grows stronger, luring an army of semi-brainwashed female followers into the mountains above Thebes, including the king’s own mother.

Pentheus captures Dionysus, only for his rigid rationalism to crumble during a battle of wits with his wily prisoner, who eventually persuades the king to don female clothes in order to spy on the women in the hills. Carson and Macdonald add an unspoken homoerotic frisson between these two rivals, not to mention overtones of Pilate's deadly bargaining with Jesus. But Dionysos emerges as more of a Charles Manson than a messiah figure, leading Pentheus into a trap that will end in bloody tragedy.

Normally cast on screen as geeky oddballs, Whishaw gives full vent to his inner drag queen as the seductive sensualist Dionysos, half androgynous rock star and half shape-shifting demon: "long hair, bedroom eyes, cheeks like wine" is how Pentheus describes him, tellingly. Mostly spent in a floor-length cream dress, Whishaw’s poised performance has been compared to Conchita Wurst and Russell Brand. The bisexual, frock-wearing David Bowie of the early 1970s is another obvious reference point. It’s a strong star turn, but not so flashy as to unbalance this ensemble production.

Whishaw, Carvel and Kevin Harvey all impress as they switch accents, genders and body language between their various roles. But the secret weapon at the heart of Bakkhai is its 10-strong all-female chorus, fully integrated into the action as they outline major plot points in extended set-piece numbers. Among the stand-out voices in this army of grinning Valkyries are Bulgarian-born folk singer Eugenia Georgieva, classical soprano Catherine May and RADA vocal coach Hazel Holder. 

The multiracial choir’s lively and meticulous a capella performances borrow from both modernist and medieval modes. But Orlando Gough’s score mostly invokes the blended quartertones, hypnotic ululations and lusty yelps of traditional Balkan folk music, perhaps in a sly nod to Euripides’ twilight years in the northern Greek province of Macedonia, where Bakkhai was written. Such a strong musical flavor will divide audiences, but I could happily have dispensed with the dramatic scenes and watched a full concert by this sublime ensemble instead.

When Euripides was alive, both cast and audience for Bakkhai would most likely have been 100 percent male. Macdonald’s staging has a strong female presence, though it leaves the gender politics of ancient Greece oddly unexamined. A more ambitious modern reading might have extrapolated some more timely resonances from this portrait of a puritanical theocracy that is terrified of women, wine and dancing, especially in combination. The notion of Dionysos as a sexually anarchic immigrant from the East also speaks to contemporary racist anxieties: "his stink is in our beds and on our women."

Bakkhai contains moments of broad comedy which sometimes feel unintended, undercutting the play's tragic tone, most obviously when Carvel returns to the stage in full Margaret Thatcher drag, inescapably recalling his previous London theater antics as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. Carson and Macdonald also rely a little too heavily on expository speeches to describe major dramatic developments, distancing audiences from direct emotional engagement with the characters. The climactic shock twist, involving a prosthetic head stuck on a pole, looks disappointingly fake. In art, as in life, it’s all fun and games until somebody gets decapitated.

Even today, 2400 years later, classical scholars remain divided over whether Euripides was celebrating or criticizing Greece’s faddish religious cults with The Bacchae. This latest reboot is similarly opaque in its take-home message, never quite overcoming the cultural remoteness of its source material. But taken as a rarefied stage spectacle, Bakkhai serves up a Bacchanalian banquet of fine performances and fantastic music.

Cast: Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel, Kevin Harvey, Eugenia Georgieva, Catherine May, Melanie La Barrie, Hazel Holder
Adaptation
: Anne Carson, from the play by Euripides
Director: James Macdonald
Set & costume designer: Antony McDonald
Music: Orlando Gough
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Choreographers: Jonathan Burrows, Gillie Kleiman
Musical Director: Lindy Tennent-Brown
Presented by Almeida Theatre

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