"Bacchai" by Euripides may be a Greek Tragedy written almost 2,500 years ago, yet it seems disturbingly familiar. Tales of fanatical religious zealots who murder heathen infidels and of civilised governments, who out of fear, are determined to teach the 'filthy foreigners' to 'respect the West', sound like articles from the morning newspapers.
Dionysus, the Greek god of the vine, dramatic arts and transformation, seeks revenge for the death of his mortal mother. To this end he incarnates as Teiresias, and seducers the women of Thebes to join the Bacchai, a fanatical female cult who indulge in rites of death, sexuality and intoxication. Pentheus, the King of Thebes, seeks to bring this lawless element under control until he also finds himself coming under the bewitching influence of Teiresias.
Peter Hall's direction of this Greek tragedy relies upon the use of masks. Their use removes the human face and so, for the modern audience, may rob the play of much of its dramatic content. There is no anguish, no repressed passion, and no sorrow which is given expression within the form of the human countenance. However, the masks remind us of the invite Dionysus gives to the audience at the beginning of the play "An empty space and all of you, and me. And who am I? Dionysus son of Zeus...god of dramatic rites, god of the transformation of the humdrum." Hall argues that the use of the mask allows us to stare at the naked intense emotions being enacted without turning away in horror. I agree. Feelings of repulsion or sympathy do not arise and therefore do not drown out the full impact of the events.
Greg Hicks plays the role of Dionysus and Teiresias with menacing contempt. He moves with a seductive almost feminine quality, his quiet conviction in his own strength give an added potency that could not be achieved by any over-masculine show of authority. William Houston is histrionic in his portrayal of Pentheus yet is excellent as Agave, Pentheus’ mother. David Ryall is disappointing as Cadmus, the father of Agave. His sympathy for his daughter as she realises the depths of her madness, lacks persuasion.
Not the best Greek tragedy I have seen, but nevertheless it is still a competent production.
Next review by Jonathan Richards
The National Theatre’s marketing department has been very busy promoting Peter Hall’s highly acclaimed past in Greek mask theatre at the National. What a shame then that his present efforts on the Olivier stage appear to be so unfruitful. Playwright and classical scholar Colin Teevan has come up with a colloquial and clunky version of Euripides’ short play which all too rarely captures the tragedy, intrigue or grandeur of the situation. Peter Hall’s production may be full of visual delights, and Harrison Birtwistle’s music certainly stimulates the ear, but I often found myself laughing at how dated and naff it all seems. I am not implying a need for the “contemporary” – in fact Hall awkwardly adds the odd gun and visor mask here and there, and the play certainly has modern political resonances, but I did not feel engaged by the way the drama’s unravelling was presented.
Alison Chitty has created a stunning space for Hall’s mammoth cast, with a large raked wooden stage and a sloped platform upstage representing Mount Cithaeron, up which the Bacchai (the followers of Dionysus) dangerously lurk and climb, and it is given fruitily colourful but atmospheric washes of lighting by Peter Mumford. At times the creative forces combine to create special effects, but within the unaffecting nature of the drama, it seems more like theatrical gimmickry in a production which fails to blend text and narrative with dramatic action. Euripides’ play bursts with raw emotion, but Hall’s production sacrifices this for the depersonalised form of mask theatre; the intensity and power is never pointed specifically – it always comes across as more vaguely rhetorical. Teevan’s version manages to slip an intertextual reference to Keats: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty,” says Dionysus, but there is no emotional truth in the artistic concept chosen here.
However, the three actors who use different masks to portray different characters fare very well amid the bizarre, androgynous chorus. Greg Hicks is a very sensual Dionysus, and what he lacks in commanding presence, he certainly makes up for in alluring sexual ambiguity. This works well to bring out the femininity is William Houston’s totalitarian king Pentheus and the fragility behind his hard “mask”. When Bacchai becomes genuinely engrossing however, is when Houston doubles as Pentheus’ mother, Agave, who proudly struts around bearing the head of the son who she has inadvertently murdered. His tone is bold yet feminine, resolute yet fragile, making her moment of discovery truly moving. Here, Teevan’s writing also neatly and touchingly brings out the dramatic irony of the situation. But this all comes far too late, and Hall’s production is sadly lacking in such moments of such potency.
Next review by Matthew Fay
"Humility is the only proper attitude to the Gods" says the chorus at the end of Peter Hall's production of the Bacchai at the Olivier, echoing TS Eliot: "humility is endless". A spiritual teaching from a profoundly religious play that shows only too clearly the consequences of denying the gods, in this case god of wine, sleep, sex and theatre.
It is a production full of echoes. From the moment the pale, nervous-looking protagonist walks onto the empty stage dons the mask of Dionysus, gestures to the bare stage, and says, echoing Peter Brook, "an empty space"…Most obviously there are echoes of Hall's unforgettable production of the Orestia in the same theatre nearly twenty years ago. Greg Hicks, who played Orestes in that production, returns here as Dionysus the god and leader of the Bacchai. He brings an extraordinary authority to the role, sending shivers down the spine with his mixture of playfulness and tyranny. His physical technique is exceptional, quite eclipsing his fellow actors, who sadly are never at his level. William Houston as Pentheus, the King who arrogantly denies the god's divinity, tries valiantly but never quite spits the right degree of venom as the boy-king who secretly wishes to spy on the fierce, sensual Bacchai. He is more moving as Agave, the mother whose desperate act brings the play to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.
Other performers include long-time National stalwart David Ryall, endearingly decrepit as Cadmus the founder of the city and Pentheus' father. In common with his son and the priest Tiresias he wears modern dress with the mask. In his case he is a kind of dress-down-Friday executive, to Pentheus' chairman of the board. Such updating may jar with some, but I think it is justified in helping a modern audience relate to this ancient story. The main problem with what is an excellent production is the chorus of female celebrants, who gyrate, and ululate their way through the play. Nothing wrong with this, but they look uncomfortable doing it, and sometimes the music that accompanies their movement detracts from the text.
Reservations aside, this is richly researched, thoroughly theatrical production. On the night I saw it, Hall, famous for abandoning his productions at the first opportunity, sat anxiously taking notes. You sense, this show means something to him. I think it will mean something to those that see it.
What other critics had to say.....
DARREN DALGLISH says, "Lovers of Greek tragedies will love this solid and absorbing production directed by Peter Hall" CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It is a production of great formal beauty and one that exudes a mesmerising assurance." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Movement, music, lighting, design all work together in perfect harmony. But if I was impressed rather than moved, it is because Hall's adherence to the mask means that art triumphs over life, form over content. " NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Peter Hall's sumptuous, dehumanised revival of Bacchai left me untouched." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "I was mesmerised throughout."MADDY COSTA for TIME OUT says, "Wonderful translation...the evening is a memorable one."