Gosh women were blamed for a lot of things in ancient and medieval texts. Seen as lascivious, corruptible and unable to control their own passions, the notion of Eve as the tempter of Adam served to damn the weakness of women for centuries. In the Bakkhai it is the women who are stirred by the arrival of the God Dionysus in human form, it is they that run wild in the woods in a frenzy of drunken lust and the women’s actions that ultimately bring destruction to the city of Thebes and its leading male citizen. But in the modern world we are bombarded with the hedonistic tales of male bankers and, if the old News of the World is to be believed, footballers too. How then can this new production at the Almeida reconcile those two things, honouring a traditional story whilst still making it feel relevant in this very different modern age?
As this production opens Ben Whishaw in the role of Dionysus addresses the audience directly. With flowing mannerisms, long loosely tied hair (reminiscent of David Tennant’s additional tresses in Richard II) and wearing modern dress he represents an entity between genders. He tells us that as the son of Zeus and a mortal women he is a God, known as Bacchus to some, Dionysus to others, and has assumed entirely human form to liberate people through wine and revelry. Having travelled from place to place he has amassed a considerable following, a train of women (the Chorus) who worship him. Arriving at the gates of Thebes he is challenged by its ruler Pentheus who refuses to believe in Dionysus’s divinity, so the God concocts a plan to humiliate and punish his denier.
For anyone who had imagined Bacchus resembled the Ghost of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol, Whishaw’s performance will come as a surprise. There is a hint of madness in the occasional giggle he emits when describing his lifestyle and the effete manner draws a little from his own Richard II for the BBC. Yet there is a darkness, arrogance and considerable steel in his characterisation, assured of his right to be adored and to dole out cruel, and arguably disproportionate, justice to any who cross him. Whishaw also plays a couple of other roles including a very credible old man and Pentheus’s assistant who describes the gruesome outcome in which Whishaw is extremely affecting. As one of our finest actors this will be no surprise to those who saw his tragic role in Peter and Alice with Judy Dench, a vehicle that perhaps didn’t quite do justice to its leads.
Berti Carvel’s Pentheus is just as compelling to watch and the scenes between him and Whishaw are intense and laced with danger His Thebian leader is very much the modern presidential politician, smart suited and oozing authoritative charm which gives added meaning to his confrontations with the wispy Whishaw on the nature of power. His refusal to believe in the God, Carvel interestingly suggests, is more a fear of being unable to control urges within himself, and even when dressed for the boardroom he wears a line of silver paint down his nose, just hinting at a more colourful nature within. Later in the action he almost unrecognisably plays his own mother with a demonic force, bewitched by Dionysus and cooing over her female strength.
This brings us back to the question of making this production palatable to modern women. Partially the answer is to make the chorus of women into powerful tribal warriors, shaping the destinies of the cities they pass through, and having all the debauchery and wildness take place off stage. Additionally, as this interpretation clearly shows, it is largely the powerful men who refuse to acknowledge the God in human form and through the women Dionysus humiliates Pentheus and tears down the world of male political rule. This male blindness is seen as leading to his own destruction.
The 10 diverse women who form the chorus nicely represent differences in age and race, moving the story along with some beautiful a cappella singing or rhythmically speaking the lines. They are the representation of the Bakkhai so we see them physically change their modern dresses for the ‘fawn skins’ and ivy wreaths which denote their absorption into the bacchic rituals. As tensions mount the women adorn tribal make-up as if entering into battle and their music is interspersed with ululating cries and fierce animalistic calls. If the audience is in any doubt about the physical power of women as the instrument of this God, then Agave’s brutal speech about the joy of hunting and killing her prey, relished by Carvel, will dispel them.
It’s all laced with meaning and although their songs are beautiful, what you don’t get in this production is a proper sense of the wildness and carnage the people of Thebes were so afraid of. So much of the action takes place off-stage that this perfectly tuned choir of women don’t quite seem as depraved or dangerous as they should. The women seem devoted, possessed even by Dionysus but they feel too sanitised, powerful but not unfettered enough. Perhaps then, this is the compromise the production has had to make to ensure that the female characters appeal to the twenty-first century woman – they can be tough and resilient but they can’t be entirely without restraint. You certainly don’t leave the theatre thinking that women are all weak and corrupt, which, intentionally or not, given this play’s content is some small victory for the production team.
There were a few empty seats and very reasonably ticket prices when I went. A barely restricted view seat at the back of the circle (Row E) was only £10 so well worth a try to enjoy the latest entry into the Almeida’s Greek season. There’s not a lot of Greek drama in the West End (although a transfer has been announced for Oresteia to the Trafalgar Studios) and it’s hard to imagine seeing a production like this at any of the big theatres, so it’s well worth heading to Angel to see this while you can. And of course with the imminent release of Spectre, interest in Ben Whishaw will be renewed so this is a good time to see one of his finest performances.
Bakkhai is at the Almeida until 19 September with tickets at £10-£38.