The Almeida Greeks Season could hardly have had a more impressive start than the visceral and starkly modern interpretation of the Oresteia trilogy, soon to get a richly-deserved transfer to the West End. And now for something completely different. Anne Carson’s new version of Euripides’ Bakkhai (or Bacchae) opens with a monologue by Dionysus, son of Zeus, newly arrived on Earth having taken on human form, the form of Ben Wishaw to be precise. Wearing a long dark wig, Wishaw delivers his monologue, breaking intermittently to giggle, in a manner that is mocking, capricious and camp. This is an asexual god, intent on mischief, establishing at the outset that what follows is to be a production awash with unorthodoxy and irreverence. Dionysus inspires the women of Thebes to congregate for the world’s first bacchanalian orgy, fuelled by wine and sex, leaving it to the King, Pentheus, to restore order. The women, ten of them seen on stage, double as Chorus, mostly singing their lines a cappella in perfect unison, alternating between sweet harmonies and strident wailing. The effect is very strange, but stranger is still to come. Dionysus persuades Pentheus that the only way to infiltrate the orgy is to abandon his neatly-pressed modern business suit and dress in women’s clothing. As Bertie Carvell plays Pentheus, what ensues has a feeling of déjà vu, but Greek tragedy performed in the style of Some Like it Hot has to be a first. Later, Carvell reappears in even more hideous drag, playing Pentheus’ mother, perpetrator of the play’s inevitable bloody deed, and, at this point, the balance of James MacDonald’s production between tragedy and comedy is precarious, yet fascinating for being so. On a bare stage, superbly lit, all the solo roles are played with vigour by Wishaw, Carvell and the sturdy Kevin Harvey. Euripides explored the relationships between gods and mortals, rule of law and anarchy, good and evil, but Carson and MacDonald move his play one stage further by challenging us to take in all the forms and illusions of theatre itself, compressed into a 110 minute time frame. The result is a head-dizzying theatrical cocktail that, love it or loathe it, will not be easy to forget.
Performance date: 29 July 2015