Tag Archives: Ben Whishaw

Julius Caesar – Bridge Theatre

Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre

‘The fault… is not in our stars / But in ourselves… think of the world’. No matter where Julius Caesar is performed or when it is set, as these commuted lines demonstrate, this 400-year old play is always incredibly prescient, asserting the foolishness of rash action and the arrogance of politicians. Yet, over-hasty decisions are made by officials all the time, ones that have avoidable consequences had they been given proper thought and chosen for the right reasons. And while the assassination of a leader may be the ultimate political act, nobility of intention ultimately results in uncertainty, fear and a dangerous power vacuum.

Many of Shakespeare’s plays examine the corrupting and destructive desire for power that urges men to ruin or, more often, murder their friends. When Macbeth plunges daggers into Duncan’s chest, it is a lust for Kingship that has driven him to it; Claudius, intending to wed his sister-in-law, pours poison in the ear of Hamlet’s father to feed his monarchical ambition, while Lear’s grasping daughters secure their inheritance and his crown, but turf-out their ill father to wander in the wilderness. But none of these characters are allowed to enjoy their victory for long, those who falsely obtain power are punished, the blood on their hands being a symbolic first step to their own demise.

Julius Caesar follows the same course, considering two types of power – the dictator and parliamentary approaches – leaving it up to individual productions and the audience to decide which (if either) offers the most chance of happiness for a nation. At the start of the play Caesar is triumphant, returned from Gaul feted, loved and invincible, a colossus bestriding the world, and we hear rather than see that he is a dictator, an emperor, near enough a King trying to rule without democratic process. Pitted against him are a band of Senators who fear their ‘overmighty’ ruler and determine that for the good of the Republic he must be assassinated. Although led by the noble Brutus whose honourable conscience urges action to assuage his principles, the other conspirators have muddier means, and so Shakespeare offers a fascinating debate about the right to kill for a supposed greater good.

This has long been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, and the buzz surrounding the first few performances of Nicholas Hytner’s interpretation, and its excellent cast, has raised considerable expectations. And the excitement is entirely deserved because the Bridge Theatre’s new production of Julius Caesar is magnificent, energetic and perfectly conceived, with a vision that not only brings a new clarity to the play but is consistently applied to every imaginatively staged and riveting minute of this two-hour show. Yes, it’s loud, brash and even a tad gimmicky in places, it starts with a blaring concert and ends celebrating the name of a ‘glorious’ new leader, but this rock-and-roll Shakespeare has an emotional depth and force that is never less than entirely compelling.

This in-the-round / promenade (for the pit audience) production, is a marvel of design ingenuity. Created by Bunny Christie, multiple platforms rise from the floor to create stages, homes, the Senate and the battlefield, placing the characters above the crowd and lending an authenticity to the moments of genuine oration and spectacle. The whole place feels like a boxing ring or a bullfighting arena, starkly lit by Bruno Poet and carried through into the performances as David Calder’s Caesar makes his entrance like a victorious champ returning to the ring for one last bout. It feels appropriate for what follows, as soldiers and politicians go head to head in a fight to the death.

Of the many intriguing elements in Hytner’s approach, the clear divide he draws between the two camps brings real clarity to why the story unfolds as it does. Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Octavian are strategic, powerful men who think logically about what must be done, while the conspirators, led by Brutus, are cerebral, carefully arguing their case with precedents and regulation using assassination as a theoretical act, without properly understanding the physical effect it will have on them or the ability to foresee, or satisfactorily conduct, the war which follows.

The conspirators don’t feel dangerous as such, a deliberate choice, and while they do kill a man, Hytner makes them seem like a group of liberals, bogged down in the intellectual cause and utterly out of their depth. A sly hint too of the distance of politicians from the will of the people and how little they understand what people really want from government. How timely that feels.

The portrayal of Brutus underscores all of this with Ben Whishaw easily delivering one of his best stage performances to date, and that is a high bar indeed. Brutus is actually quite a difficult role and is often the weakest aspect of productions. Noble in both behaviour and respected lineage, the contradiction of his friendship with Caesar and decision to end his life can make the character seem too remote. But Whishaw sidesteps this with an idea of Brutus’s essential fallibility that offers new insight into his behaviour and to the eventual failure of the central plot.

Whishaw’s bookish Brutus, for all his academic prowess, is shown to be a terrible decision-maker – something more clearly marked in Whishaw’s performance than previously seen. As unofficial leader, he repeatedly overrules the cautious and more astute Cassius to take the wrong path, leading to their downfall. The decisions to only kill the dictator, to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, to let Mark Anthony speak to the mob alone and to face his enemy at Philippi where he then attacks too early are used by Whishaw to demonstrate Brutus’s arrogance and lack of strategic thinking.

Casting Cassius as a woman – a superb interpretation by Michelle Fairley – only adds even more weight to Brutus’s flaws as he becomes a mansplaining fool, patronising his female colleagues who have considerably more insight that he does. Whishaw’s Brutus believes he is a good man and for a while the audience thinks so too, but for all his conscience-wrangling before the act, he has no insight into himself or ability to see beyond the intellectual liberal cause he espouses. He is no man of the people and Whishaw shows with incredible clarity that Brutus aligns with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, a man driven to destruction by his own fatal flaw, an inability to see the world as it really is.

By contrast David Morrissey’s Mark Anthony is fully a man of the world, not remotely sensitive, arrogant and determined to enjoy life’s pleasures, but steeped in military knowledge and loved by the mob which makes him a far shrewder politician than his counterparts. Morrissey shows that love for a fellow soldier is more real than the false idea of friendship offered by the political elite, and his carefully controlled oration at Caesar’s funeral is brilliantly delivered as he sets aside the microphone to walk into the crowd, genuinely creating a sense of outrage and thirst for revenge that fills the auditorium. Unlike Brutus, Morrisey’s Mark Anthony knows exactly who he is and has the savvy to evoke a chaos in Rome that he knows exactly how to control.

The gender-blind casting is a production highlight, fitting seamlessly into a traditionally male-dominated play, adding a modern spin, while allowing Michelle Fairley as Cassius, Adjoa Andoh as Casca and Leila Farzad as Decius Brutus in particular to deliver top-notch performances as co-conspirators. Fairley’s Cassius is full of bitter scorn for the great leader she once rescued from drowning, and her demands for equality seem to speak to the ages. Fairley charts how Cassius’s manipulation of Brutus is abruptly turned around when she is forced to concede to what she supposes is his greater understanding, which adds fury to their confrontation before Philippi as she viciously chastises him for the mess he’s created.

Andoh’s Casca is a glowering presence who enjoys the grubby criminality of murder far more than ideals of liberating the Republic, while Farzad brilliantly captures the contrast between thought and deed as her confident Decius Brutus leads Caesar to his death then promptly bursts into tears afterwards, overcome by the reality and stain of what they’ve done. Through all this David Calder’s small role as the hardly seen titular dictator haunts everyone, a man who dons a politician’s suit under the slogan ‘Do This! (cleverly taken from Antony’s line in Act 1, Scene 2 “When Caesar says, ‘do this’, it is performed”), but retains his military bearing. Calder is commanding and ‘constant as the northern star’ but leaves the audience to decide whether he deserved to die.

Nicholas Hytner’s production of Julius Caesar is nothing short of Roman triumph, capturing the wonderful lyricism of Shakespeare’s writing, in what are some of his most beautiful speeches, with an urgency of action that means two hours just races by. The production vision is so strong and so consistently applied that a plot that starts in Brutus’s living room and ends at the wire-strewn battlefield of Philippi seems a natural progression. Whether you’re being slightly pushed around in the pit or safely seated, once again the striking modernity of the play, of people who kill for power and leave disaster in its place, rings out. It is humanity’s poor thinking not destiny that causes the world’s problems, and 400 years after it was first performed this play reminds us this is still the case. So, listen to Caesar’s moto and get a ticket for this thrilling production while you can – “Do This!”

Julius Caesar is at the Bridge Theatre until 15 April with an NT Live cinema screening on 22 March. Tickets start at £15, with standing tickets available to be part of the Roman crowd. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1   


Against – The Almeida

Ben Whishaw in Against, The Almeida

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.

The Silicon Valley set rarely come off well in popular culture with a combination of technological innovation and immense wealth that seems to separate these CEOs and entrepreneurs from the world they’re intent on changing. From Christopher Walken’s deliciously evil Bond villain planning to drown his competitors to ensure his microchips became invaluable in A View to a Kill to the determined protagonist in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs who rode roughshod over the feelings and loyalties of his colleagues, the tech billionaire is usually presented as someone who wants change at any price.

In reality though, there is another side to these businesses and to the people who run them that can be equally controversial. The charities, foundations and outreach programmes set-up by big multinationals or well-known entrepreneurs can often generate as much negative publicity as helpful support for local communities. And society takes quite a contradictory view on attempts to patronise the arts, fund school buildings or establish charitably foundations – on the one hand, we expect organisations with vast wealth to share it, while condemning donations from unethical sources. In the world of the tech billionaire, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Christopher Shinn’s new play Against explores these issues using one technology entrepreneur who leaves his multiple businesses to begin a nationwide campaign to highlight the different kinds of violence in everyday America. But, rather than pressure from society or the media to share his fortune, Luke’s motivation is more internal, believing he has received a direct order from God to go out into the world and help people. The messianic qualities of the mission become muddied by the mixed reaction he receives and how his logical mind responds to the ever-widening definition of violence he encounters.

It’s clear that Luke (Ben Whishaw) is someone who hops from project to project, although why is never really explored – is it the way his mind works, boredom or a form of short-term thinking that allows him to flutter between activities but never really settle on one thing. We discover early on that he made his money from designing rockets, and has several companies, but his rise to the top of his profession, what he actually does and the effects of this on his decision to transform himself into a social campaigner are not part of this story. Instead, we’re initially asked to take Luke as we find him, although later Shinn tries half-heartedly to give him some unrelated backstory.

The first half focuses on his tour of America, and we see him bounce from issue to issue, and while promising never to leave, soon moving on to the next opportunity. He starts with the recent aftermath of a high school shooting, before moving on to the problem of campus rape and finally the treatment of prisoners, where he incites the various people he meets to follow his cause. This structural approach has much in common with Steve Jobs that used three product launches to examine the changing issues and personality of the entrepreneur and gave the story both a narrative drive and continual tension as you watched him interact with the same set of people over a number of years. But Against takes a more lightweight approach to Luke’s involvement with these communities; he gathers their stories and brings publicity but Shinn isn’t using this deliberately to give us insight into Luke and his purpose, nor really to the acts of violence described.

While Act One is enjoyable to watch with plenty of dramatic possibilities set up in the various encounters Luke has, Act Two seems to squander almost all of them, turning largely away from the causes and consequences of violence – and away from Assassin’s Creed territory –  to Luke’s own personality and the effect of his visit on the ‘disciples’ he leaves behind, people once inspired by his proximity left to fend for themselves. And while that sounds like a sensible direction for the show to take, in practice the effect is muddled and unsatisfactory.

In Act Two, Luke halts his campaign, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and begins to struggle with his feelings for colleague Sheila (Amanda Hale) and a romantic subplot develops between them. He also returns home for a month and looks through old boxes from his school days and even meets up with a former childhood friend, reminiscing about why they lost touch for a while, but doesn’t add anything to our understanding of violence or Luke’s motivation which seemed to be the focus of the first part.

The surrounding cast are also given more spotlight moments in which they move from talking about the violence they encountered to solely discussing Luke, his whereabouts and when he might be returning to their community. These scenes are not sculpted enough to give proper character insight into these various individuals inspired by Luke’s mission, but nor do they properly tell us anything about the way Luke has been perceived and why he inspired people. It frequently mentions detractors but never shows them, so the story seems unevenly loaded towards liking Luke but without proper reasons for doing so.

Against is an odd collection of ideas, philosophies and political standpoints that never really delves beneath the surface of the causes and consequences of violence in society or the characters it follows. It’s not clear what questions Shinn is even asking in its near 3-hour run time and it too often feels that the breadth and complexity of the issues he touches on overwhelmed him, and so, like Luke, Shinn is only creating awareness without teasing out the root causes of the human behaviour that drives people to violence.

Luke has an interesting early conversation with the parents of Tom who shot his schoolfriends and then himself in the cafeteria, as well as hints at the isolation and exclusion that may have driven him to it, but this never fully develops across the show to meaningfully highlight the effects of these acts on his family and friends. Neither does Against build on the other initial theme about what happens to communities when the cameras stop rolling and again, like Luke, Shin becomes distracted by other layers of debate that lead to a meandering and introspective second half that blurs the focus between Luke’s self-discovery and the people he meets.

This production’s saving grace is Ben Whishaw’s magnetic and thoughtful central performance which gives an intensity to the character of Luke that allows the audience to understand why the characters are drawn to him. Happily, this sustains your interest even in the most wayward moments, helping to smooth over the cracks in the work, at least during the period of the play. Whishaw is an actor who could make the back of a cereal packet seem profound, and he uses all his skills here to give life to a character with an almost zealous purpose, but short-attention span for individual causes.

There is an Aspergic quality to Luke, who though highly intelligent, clearly sees the world differently to those around him, where an inability to communicate means he cannot make others see his logic. Again, there are interesting comparisons to be made with Michael Fassbender’s depiction of Steve Jobs, and how the success of tech entrepreneurs can stem from a closure to the emotional world, particularly the sensitivities of others, where logic, science and business-need drive these genius individuals to place machine-like process above human need. And although Whishaw subtly suggests many of these things the text isn’t actually interested in who Luke is and what makes him so special.

In somewhat subverting that, Whishaw commands the stage, introducing a contained physicality into the performance that creates a sense of separateness from the those around him, reinforcing the Jesus-like role he’s cast in (but is also under explored). He uses small gestures such as scrunching his hands or tightening the jaw to convey the mental processes happening beneath the surface as Luke tries to make things fit, and there’s a consistency in the rational-minded man that runs through the play, so he seem as innocence and well-meaning at the end as he was at the start.

The surrounding cast provide solid support in a number of underwritten roles that draw us into the lives of various people Luke meets along the way. As well as Sheila (Amanda Hale), Luke’s long-suffering colleague who facilitates his work while waiting patiently for him to return her feelings, Naomi Wirthner gives a sensitive performance as Tom’s mother deeply affected by her child’s actions but, unlike her husband, open to understanding more about the causes. Kevin Harvey as a former sex-worker turned creative writing Professor gets several scenes in which he coaches Emma D’Arcy’s Anna, herself in a polyamorous relationship that feeds into her writing, but neither of these things develop into properly layered insights into various ways of living, and it’s here that the concepts of violence that Shinn wants to discuss become confused. When attention turns almost entirely to the subplots in the second half, it’s difficult to empathise, despite the performances, because Shinn hasn’t done enough to make us care about them earlier on.

Against is a watchable and pleasant enough experience, but it ends up on too many tangents that never quite add up to a satisfactory experience. It has some valuable points to make about our definition of and response to acts of violence in society, but as the play unfolds it feels like Shinn became so awed by the scale of his creation that the hasty attempt to draw these strands together and find an ending feels wholly unconvincing.

This is a shame for The Almeida after a highly fruitful year that has seen positive acclaim for all of its productions, with Hamlet about to conclude its successful West End transfer and the transfers of Mary Stuart and Ink opening in the next few months. Their run of form had to end sometime and Against probably would have benefitted from another 6-12 months of development to smooth out the many inconsistencies, tie up the loose ends and decide what it really wants to say. Whether this a story about violence, religious idealism, the personalities of tech billionaires or the double-edged sword of charitable donation, Shinn’s play leaves the audience with all the wrong questions at the end. Depsite a very fine performance from Ben Whishaw – which is worth seeing – you leave wondering what was the point of that?

Against is at The Almeida until 30 September and tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Suffragette – London Film Festival

This is a film about betrayal – political, national and personal. And, as you’d expect, it’s also about sacrifice; sacrifice of family, of social standing, of safety, sacrifice of body and of life. The story of the Suffragettes may, a hundred years later, seem inevitable but in 1912-13, when women had been peacefully campaigning for the right to vote for 50 years, it was anything but. A right that nowadays is so fundamentally accepted by both sexes that many choose not to even exercise it is shown in Abi Morgan’s film to be incredibly hard-won.

It is of course London Film Festival time and in the next 10 days hundreds of films will be screened all over London, showing movies from across the world ranging from tiny indie flicks to major Hollywood premieres. This October is a big film month for me, for once pushing the theatre aside; it began with the incomparable Macbeth and will end with the simulcast Spectre on the 26th. In between is the Film Festival, probably my favourite time of year, which this year will include films such as Carol, Truth, Black Mass, High Rise and Steve Jobs.

But first up was Suffragette and you should not let the period setting fool you, this is brutal film that covers a short period in which women who campaigned for the right to vote turned to more militant tactics to get noticed. It was very much a man’s world before the First World War in industrial, political and domestic circles so even getting the media to take Suffragettes seriously and report their activity was difficult. This eye-opening film shows their attempt to increase awareness of their cause through increasingly violent tactics, building up to the famous death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby which, as this film argues, finally made women’s suffrage front page news.

But Morgan adroitly chooses a domestic approach to this story and while the famous figures of Davison and the Pankhurst waft through, it is ordinary working-class women in the East End who are the focus – a decision which both helps the audience to identify the contemporary relevance of this cause and veers away from the ‘great men of history’ approach which often wrongly ascribe significant change to the influence of a single individual. In this case, Emmeline Pankhurst was the inspiration but it was thousands of ordinary women of all classes who coordinated the protests. So we follow Maud, a fictional laundress, who finds herself accidentally drawn into the movement whose initial reluctance and fear of social humiliation amongst her community is contrasted by how much more radical she becomes than some of the original members.

Carey Mulligan gives a complex performance as the struggling Maud, and is particularly affecting when describing the real hardship women of her class experienced, without education and often working from the age of 7, enduring long hours, grinding poverty and unpleasant attention from their bosses. One of the most interesting things Mulligan shows us is just how long Maud has endured her second-class citizen role, clinging only to her happy family life with fellow-laundry worker husband (Ben Whishaw) and child, but that the movement gives her a clarity about her position and hope for something more. It’s incredibly moving at times as she sacrifices her happiness for the cause and there is a particularly heart-breaking moment that will have many audience members judging her decision before asking themselves tricky questions about whether they would do the same thing for such an important cause. But Mulligan shows us that Maud comes to her decisions organically, she’s not defiant from the start but almost surprises herself in becoming so passionately involved.

Maud is drawn to the cause by Violet played by the excellent Anne-Marie Duff, who agitates in the laundry and remains unaffected by the derision of the other workers. We’re only given hints about Violet’s domestic life – an alcoholic husband, numerous children and continual moves – but Duff instils her with a believable sense of a woman who made her choice long ago but human enough to understand the costs for everyone. Duff and Mulligan are supported by Helena Bonham Carter as a local pharmacist (with a sympathetic husband) who coordinates the local campaigns at increasing cost to her own health. Bonham Carter here gives one of her best performances in years, played absolutely straight, and represents another kind of sacrifice women made to secure the vote. Romola Garai turns up far more briefly than the promotional material suggests as a wealthy politician’s wife, whose role seems only to be patronised by her husband to show that other classes of women wanted the vote too – in fact she only has slightly more screen time than Meryl Streep as Pankhurst in a ‘blink- and-you’ll-miss-her’ 30 seconds of screen time, she’ll probably win an Oscar for it though!

It’s not all about the women and we see three different sets of men. First Ben Whishaw has a decent stab as Maud’s disapproving husband, and is probably the only man in the film who you see is also filling a socially determined gendered role, expected to control his wife, support the family and make the decisions. There’s also the one-note bulling factory boss with an eye for young girls that emphasises the horrific lot of working women at this time, and finally there’s a coming together of politicians and some kinds of secret service / police group that gives interesting texture about how the Establishment tracked and attempted to undermine the Suffragettes, but tells us little about the expectations on powerful men in this period. Brendan Gleeson and Sam West appear in the latter group and both are excellent, but West in particular is criminally underused.

As you leave the cinema, the thing you remember most is the violence that these women endured. Early on after finding the Government has betrayed them, a Suffragette protest is broken up by the savage beating of women by policeman which is hard to watch. This leads to some equalling gruelling prison scenes that show further assaults on the dignity of the female prisoners and in a galling scene the force-feeding of a hunger-striker through the nose. This of course all leads up to the finale at the Derby where director Sarah Gavron builds the tension with bustling crowd scenes full of confusion before the fatal moment when a shocked silence descends as the newspaper cameras finally notice the Suffragettes.  And this nicely dissolves from our cast going off to the funeral to the real footage of Suffragettes honouring their cause behind the hearse.

So is this a good film or is it an important one? Of course as the first ever film about Suffragettes its importance is assured and with very little competition unless you count one of Alec Guinness’s many brief turns in Kind Hearts and Coronets. But it also stands as an interesting and carefully crafted film, full of multi-layered characters who just happen to be telling true stories. Refreshingly, there’s no sense of inevitability about it and although we know now how it eventually turned out, the precariousness of it comes through so well in this film. And as the final notes reveal it still took a World War to give women over 30 the vote and another 10 years before everyone got the right. I said at the beginning that Suffragette is a film about betrayal and sacrifice, and so it carefully weaves together a national political cause with the domestic treacheries and losses endured by the women involved. Suffragette stands then not just as symbol of a 100 year old movement but brings a very human tale of bravery and faith to remind us that sometimes a higher cause is worth fighting for.

Suffragette was shown at the BFI London Film Festival and the programme is


Bakkhai – Almeida Theatre

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.


%d bloggers like this: