Euripides’ Bacchae is a celebration of the exotic and ecstatic: it makes us face the darker parts of humanity, and question what it means to be a leader. Dionysus (Bacchus in Latin) is the god of wine, theatre, ritual madness and religious ecstasy – having returned to Thebes and been dismissed as a false god by its leader, his cousin Pentheus, he exacts brutal revenge on Pentheus and the women of Thebes for denying his divinity. The subject matter of this play is strange and difficult for modern audiences: we don’t like cruel gods, who torture helpless humans for revenge. Instead, we like a hero, an underdog, or – in the case of a complete tragedy – at least a definite moral lesson. This play offers none of these: it is a clear-cut Greek tragedy, intense and violent, and with some unpleasant things to say about human nature and the world in which we live.
Originally performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre in February, this production of the Bacchae has been specially adapted for performance in the British Museum. In this promenade version of the performance, the audience follows the actors around the Great Court. The audience members are given headphones, creating an immersive experience and at the same time solving the acoustic problems presented by such a large space. It is sometimes frustrating to be trying to find somewhere to sit or adjusting headphones while the action is occurring, and when ‘Tickets’ signs and other anachronistic features of the museum are visible in the background it can be distracting – but on the whole, the performance gains rather than loses from its new setting, as the lack of scenery allows us to see the play as taking place anywhere and everywhere.
Although the actors are all very young, their performances are strong: the girls playing the Maenads all fully embrace the ecstatic frenzy called for, maniacally worshipping Dionysus with ethereal dances and shrill chants and proving that ‘cult’ is not too strong a word for the title of this performance. The girls work well as an ensemble, egging each other on in their frenzy, but stand alone with equal strength: Charlotte Holtum’s Agave is especially moving in the final scene, as she gradually moves from wild Bacchic trance to full awareness of herself and her actions. Pavlos Chrisodoulou embodies the spirit of Dionysus completely, calmly insolent in the face of Pentheus’ rage until he reveals his true power towards the end of the play; while Adam Woolley is outstanding as Pentheus, skilfully conveying both his rage and confusion.
The costumes in this production are impressively designed – especially those of the Bacchae themselves, whose indulgences are reflected in their luxurious, sexual outfits, with trailing fabric that echoes creeping vines and enhances the dance scenes with an even greater impression of frenzy and vulgar carnality. Dionysus’ costume, which also features drapery and exposed skin, achieves the same effect – especially when contrasted with the conservative suit worn by Pentheus. Throughout the performance, live musicians accompany the action, dressed as Bacchae and hovering at the back of each scene, their scratchy strings and low, simmering drums providing the perfect accompaniment to this play which is all about tension and darkness.