Bakkhai at the Almeida
Continuing the Almeida’s Greeks season is James Macdonald’s Bakkhai: a reworking of Euripedes’ ancient tragedy by Anne Carson. This tale of Dionysus – the denied God of theatre and wine – is retold with a strong cast, with all the dramatic twists and turns intact and a mercifully accessible script.
Bakkhai, based on classic The Bacchae, is the story of Dionysus (Ben Whishaw), son of Zeus and mortal woman Semele. Outraged that his royal mother’s family in Thebes refuse to acknowledge him as a god, Dionysus takes human form and visits the kingdom. He turns his aunts insane, forcing them to flee to Mount Cithaeron driven mad by their shared compulsion to worship him, before targeting proud Pentheus (Bertie Carvel), the appointed ruler. Tragedy lies in store for the king should he ascend the mountain to see the lewd women, but Dionysus must do all he can to tempt him there, so he can be truly revered and worshipped as a god by the people of Thebes.
The production is certainly impressive and particularly nicely choreographed, with the finest example of this coming from its reimagined Greek Chorus. With a tribal-like quality, the traditional narrators sing and yelp for Dionysus equipped with staffs and wild costumes. They dance and interact on stage with precision, and perform some strikingly beautiful harmonies throughout. The staging, with surrounding mountains that become seats, allows them to surround the action and watch as the drama unfolds, creating an omnipresent second audience that characters can interact with throughout.
There are strong performances from Bertie Carvel, in his clever suit-as-a-king character and as the distraught Agave, but stealing the show is Ben Whishaw and his nonchalant Dionysus. Fully aware that he is pushing his ignorant cousin towards doom, he enlists the audience as his confidant, and creates a conspirator’s bond that provides much of the humour as the protagonist and audience are united in delighting at the hapless actions of ill- fated Pentheus. With its only misdemeanour being that it is slightly overlong, it is an interesting and entertaining play which manages to bring Ancient Greek theatre to the stage in an unexpectedly unique manner.
Bakkhai is on at the Almeida Theatre from 23rd July until 19th September 2015, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for the Almeida Greeks series here:
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