The Bacchae, directed by Gabriele Uboldi, is a triumphant attempt to turn the 2400 year old classic drama by Euripides into a funny, politically relevant piece of theatre that appeals to, and engages, a modern audience. You are instantly captured as the bustling of the audience waiting for the doors to open is interrupted by Olli Gilford and Caitlin Morris, who are the dynamic duo playing Cadmus and Tiresias, interrupting the audience’s chatter, out of character, in hushed tones whispering about a conflict in the cast; the staging of the classic play is threatened by disagreements between Molly Williams who plays Dionysus, and Edd Smith, playing Pentheus. As the audience is led into the Stage the cast and crew are on stage, chatting away, preparing for the show. The stage manager receives a phone call informing the team that the director will be unable to attend this, the premier of the the show, which Molly Williams sees as an opportunity to hijack the play and stage it her way.
The original plot is somewhat intact, the god Dionysus comes to Thebes in disguise to introduce Dionysian rituals and revenge slander that he is no god, and the King Pentheus attempts to prevent this. Yet Williams’ hijacking is the beginning of a parallel plot reflecting the original story, where she and Smith face off in a battle of the better interpretation of the material. After briefly and hilariously describing the plot, she makes a convincing speech displaying the madness that Williams and her character Dionysis share an anarchic passion for, where she relates the necessity of appealing to a modern audience and breaking up the classic material to address current issues, and the danger of traditional, conservative values, referencing Brexit and Trump.
The script is a wonderfully organic combination of the traditional dialogue between the characters, and the actors’ hushed conflicts out of character, that does indeed capture the audience with both light hearted jokes and serious intensity. Especially entertaining are Williams’ fights with the stoically traditional Smith who stands firm in defence of the original staging of the play. But, like her character, Williams has her way, as the chorus are on her side in the anarchic staging of the classic drama challenging the boundaries of theatre, much like the Bacchaes’ frenzic rituals challenged the traditional ways of Thebes. They invite the audience to see theatre as something changeable and anarchistic, to challenge our mindset and be bold in scrutinizing current issues, to not be stuck in old ways and let conservative powers take over while we idly sit by and do nothing.
Every member of the chorus is convincing in their roles and add to both the humour and the power of the performance. Their funny charm whilst dissing Smith’s take on the play is contrasted with the bloody end of the drama, that is tightly choreographed by Charmaine Miller, whose complex choreographies in combination with the dramatic soundtrack and lighting heighten the powerful presence of the Bacchic women, giving an extra edge to the performance and adding to the modern vision of the show. The costumes by Madison Hauser also add to the visual element that bridges the ancient drama with the modern take; Williams’ demand to tear off the togas results in the Bacchae chorus, to Smith’s dismay, being dressed in crop tops and short shorts, which again adds to the power of the Bacchic women.
The intensity and presence of the chorus perfectly compliments William’s Dionysus in her absolutely vibrant performance that is marked by a mad energy that fills the entire stage, highlighted by her insane laughter and nasty slurs. Her performance dynamically challenges and gradually undermines the authoritative presence of Smith’s Pentheus, who captures his character’s doomed attempt to maintain power and growing insecurity with equal parts authority as vulnerable sensitivity, and although he is not who I rooted for, his death at the hands of his own mother is heartbreaking. As Smith’s Pentheus dies, so does his vision for the play as pieces of bloodstained paper fly through the air to the accompaniment of the dramatic soundtrack and Smith’s screams: ‘My script! My script!’
As Williams delivers the final speech in deadly silence, you can almost taste the tension in the air as she and the chorus deliver the message that the fate that befell Pentheus is what will happen to those who set their mind on what they think will come to be, and those who are not prepared for the unexpected. The warning weighs heavy in the air where the post-Brexit, post-Trump era has just begun.