The Bacchae by Euripides.
Presented by William Head On Stage Theatre Studio
and generation studio
Directed by Robert Osborne
Music by Jennifer White.
Costumes by Steven Troupe.
May 8, 1995, Victoria, B.C.
Reviewed by Laurel Bowman
Department of Greek & Roman Studies
University of Victoria
P.O Box 3045
CANADA V8W 3P4
Phone: (604) 721-8517
Fax: (604) 721-8516
William Head On Stage Theatre Studio was formed fourteen years ago by a small group of prisoners at William Head Penitentiary taking a drama course at the University of Victoria. Though it has employed some outside assistance, it is still primarily organized, staffed and run by prisoners at the institution, and is the only prison theatre group in Canada which opens its doors to the public for performances. It is so well known that some prisoners in other Canadian institutions--as, for example, Marco Martinez (Cadmus) in this year's performance--will do their best to transfer to William Head in order to join the theatre group. This year WHOS joined forces with 'generation studio', a group dedicated to fostering personal growth through the development of good theatre. Almost all of the cast were prisoners at William Head; many had never been involved in a theatrical production before. The performance however was of high professional caliber, belying the inexperience of the participants.
Theatre-goers were given kid-glove treatment by the guards at the entrance; that is to say, we were asked to leave our wallets, purses, and any loose cash in the lockers by the first gate, but were not required to turn out our pockets or submit to a search, as is the more usual practice for visitors to the institution. The audience was kept segregated from the general prison grounds; vans met playgoers just past the security check and deposited them outside the theatre door, where an area marked off by yellow police tape was allocated to members of the public who wished to stretch their legs before the performance.
The WHOS production of The Bacchae was directed by Robert Osborne, an outsider who last year directed the WHOS production of Marat/Sade. The stage was set up as a theatre-in-the- square, with the audience on risers on all four sides; motion and dialogue throughout the production was aimed at each of the sides in turn. Actors wore no masks but all wore blue face-paint in different designs. The tattoos on the arms, backs, and chests of many of the actors were not done for the performance, but their colour-co-ordination with the paint contributed to the impression that not only their faces, but their bodies, were masked.
The stage was initially practically empty; the first cast member to enter was a member of the chorus, carrying a basket. She sang a First Nations (Native American) prayer while purifying the stage and audience with a burning sage bundle, whose smoke she waved to all four compass points. First Nations ritual and prayer was effectively integrated into the production at key points throughout, and drew attention to the 'otherness' of the chorus and Dionysos; the religion they introduced to the Thebans, like the First Nations religion being presented on stage before a Western audience, was the religion of the non-dominant group, and alien to the Thebans they confronted.
She was replaced by an athletic chorus, entering from the center under the risers on one side, and from all four corners, some carrying Ionic pillars. In the course of a fast-moving dancing and tumbling routine, crossing the stage in interlocking diagonal lines, the chorus the stage was set up with pillars in the corners. Prop placement was handled by chorus members throughout the performance. The movements of the chorus under Osborne's direction were athletic and well-choreographed, and contributed much to the performance. In the earthquake scene, for example, the dance of the chorus conveyed the shaking of the earth. Osborne made good use of the entire stage in choral dance and in the performance in general; in the final scene, for example, Agave (Nancy Guest) first circles the stage with the head of Pentheus on a stick, speaking to all the chorus in turn, and is then carried on the shoulders of the chorus around the perimeter, so she can show her catch to all, including the audience.
Pentheus' role was played with the proper stubborn arrogance by Christian Snelgrove; the brutality and contempt with which Pentheus and his servants treated Dionysos and the maenads were frighteningly realistic, reminiscent perhaps of the interactions between guards and prisoners in penal institutions. The scenes between Pentheus and Dionysus (Kenneth Sutherland) were particularly well-handled; Pentheus' progressive and unconscious submission to the cloaked Dionysos even while he continues to argue and defy him was shown in movement, with the use of hand gestures. During their interchanges, Dionysus slowly made hypnotic gestures with his bare right hand and forearm. Pentheus responded, without any change in the pace of the dialogue, by moving his body in time to the hand gestures, gradually sliding to his knees and to the floor in submission to Dionysos' power. By the time Pentheus re-entered in women's garments, swaggering in gold lame and a Marilyn Monroe wig, the audience was not surprised to see him entirely surrendered to the feminine role he had earlier rejected. The campy transvestite scene struck the only questionable note in the performance: Pentheus was arrogant and sure of himself even in drag, where I would have said that the text demanded a certain show of timidity and uncertainty. This performance however seemed to emphasize Pentheus' (or Snelgrove's) courage in appearing in women's clothing before this audience at all.
First Nations ritual was particularly effective in the lamentation over the body of Pentheus. After Cadmus (Marco Martinez) carried on a burlap- wrapped package with the remains of Pentheus, he knelt over the package and sang a First Nations lament before action resumed. There was no motion elsewhere on stage throughout the lament, and the audience had the opportunity to fully appreciate the tragedy of the young man's death, and the old man's grief.
Kenneth Sutherland riveted the audience's attention as Dionysus. His expression was solemn, and his movements and hand gestures were measured and deliberate, calculated to encompass and appear to control action on the entire stage; movement on stage was correspondingly choreographed to focus on Dionysus wherever he stood. When appearing in human guise Sutherland wore a floor-length black cloak which concealed his left side; only his face and right hand, which he used to control Pentheus and the chorus, were visible. Dionysus' control over the action seemed to increase during the course of the play, and where in the initial scenes he appeared standing, often with a thin sheen of sweat on his forehead, by the end of the play he played some scenes relaxed and at ease, sitting on the stage, while the other actors performed at his will. The epiphany was staged with Dionysus standing on a platform above the risers at one end of the stage area, wearing a long silver wig, white sarong, and a cape over his left side which was attached to the ceiling to his left, suggesting upward, divine motion rather than earthbound human concerns. The curtain call gave the audience a new perspective on and respect for the ease and fluidity of Sutherland's movements throughout the play, when we were allowed to see that he was missing both arm and leg on his left side, and had performed the entire play wearing a heavy, unjointed prosthetic leg.
Robert Osborne and the WHOS have expressed interest in producing more ancient drama in succeeding seasons. It is to be hoped that they do.
University of Victoria
(Laurel Bowman teaches at the University of Victoria, specializing in Greek tragedy, Hellenistic poetry and gender studies.)