"Without wine, there is no sex," says a character in Anne Carson's new version of Euripides' Bakkhai, "and with no sex, life is not worth living." As a non-drinker, I can't necessarily endorse the truth of the sentiment, but exchange wine for theatre in that declaration and I'm entirely there.
As the well-heeled Almeida audience down a few swift glasses of plonk before the show (as I have one of their swiftly made real coffees), I reckon that they understand very well the outrage when worship of the god of wine is banned.
Dionysos was also the god of theatre, with an annual week-long festival staged in his name called the Great Dionsyia at which all what we now know as the Greek tragedies were written to be performed. Bakkhai is the middle of a trilogy of them that the Almeida is currently staging as part of the Almeida Greeks season, with the opening production of Oresteia newly announced to be transferring to the West End's Trafalgar Studios from August 22.
Bakkhai is even more bankable as a future West End hit, thanks to the return to the theatre it marks of rising star Ben Whishaw, who began his professional stage career as a 23-year-old Hamlet at the Old Vic, and has since become a major film actor with a recurring role in the Bond films and starring roles in films like Brideshead Revisited, Perfume and Cloud Atlas, not to mention voicing Paddington Bear.
In the constantly morphing shapes (as well as hairstyles and vocal mannerisms) that Wishaw brings to him/her, there's plenty to worship at the altar of theatre here. The god of theatre also shines down on this production in other key ways, too, thanks to equally notable performances from Bertie Carvel as Dionsysis's foe Pentheus (and later also playing his own mother), and Kevin Harvey as an old man Kadmos who is a voice of mourning and regret for what happens.
James Macdonald's stark, vivid production is also thrillingly complemented by the constantly chanting, wailing ten-strong female chorus, who perform Orlando Gough's jagged musical score that makes it sound like a discordant contemporary opera at times. (Gough also previously scored the decidedly odd Mr Burns at the Almeida last year).
It is also strikingly illuminated, in every sense, by the most extraordinary lighting rig in town from lighting wizard Peter Mumford: part flying saucer, part stadium floodlights, it travels on a long beam to reposition itself over key parts of the action and change direction entirely. There were times it felt like it was giving a performance in itself.
"There is tremor not terror – but tremendous acting – in James Macdonald’s overly ingenious reworking of Euripides."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It’s all eminently watchable; I’m not sure how memorable. On the opening night the applause was warm – but not ecstatic."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"The result is two hours of raw and exacting theatre. But it convincingly makes the case for why it’s still worth engaging with a play written almost 2,500 years ago. Although there are moments when the staging lacks energy, its impact is genuinely disturbing."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard