Euripides' The Bacchae
Kneehigh Theatre at
Hall for Cornwall, Truro, UK
23-27 November, 2004
Reviewed by Elizabeth Stewart
Renowned Cornish theatre company Kneehigh Theatre have turned their attentions to ancient Greek drama this autumn by staging a production of Euripides' The Bacchae. Formed over twenty years ago by a school teacher who decided to run theatre workshops in his spare time, Kneehigh has gone from strength to strength, becoming a favourite both at home in Cornwall and further afield throughout the rest of the UK and abroad. The Guardian has asserted that they are 'joining the ranks of the truly great theatre companies' and earlier this year their production of The Wooden Frock was nominated for the prestigious Theatre Association Management Award for Best Touring Production.
Produced in collaboration with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Lyric Hammersmith, Bristol Old Vic and Hall for Cornwall, Kneehigh's 'seductive re-telling of Euripides' classic', The Bacchae was advertised as a 'sensuous and anarchic tale of curiosity and control, invasion and rage'. I caught a performance on Kneehigh's home territory at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro, which was its penultimate venue on a large-scale national tour.
The production, directed by Emma Rice and based around a new script written by Carl Grose and Annamaria Murphy, placed the main focus on Dionysus' revenge on Agave. The particulars surrounding the cause of Dionysus' grievance were made crystal clear by an overtly pedagogical scene towards the beginning of the play in which the chorus expounded the god's genealogy on a blackboard and acted out the circumstances of his conception: the seduction of Semele by Zeus; the incredulity of her sister, Agave; and Zeus' rescue of his son's embryo after Semele had been killed by a thunderbolt from his jealous wife, Hera.
Agave became the tragic heroine of the play: a woman who has lived all her life confined by the rigid boundaries of the court but who breaks free early on in the production, dressed in a straight, plain green dress, headscarf and sun glasses, to join the massive street party that is raging outside the palace. As the play moves on, Agave gradually strips down to her slip, assisted in one gorgeously erotic scene by Dionysus, who seduces her and sensually soothes away her inhibitions in a beautiful sequence of movement. Bit by bit her hair becomes loose and with every appearance on the stage she is visually more and more drunk, culminating in the impressive feat of her climbing the metal backdrop (which functions throughout the play as a chaotic sound effect and a climbing wall) wearing only her shift, which she hitches up around her thighs, and a pair of vivid green high heels. Once at the top, she writhes around, exploring her newly released sensuality. She refers to herself as a snake, having shed her previous skin, her roles as a daughter, a mother and a queen, and turned her back on her previous restricted life of convention. 'My new skin tingles,' she says (Carl Grose and Annamaria Murphy The Bacchae, Truro: Kneehigh Theatre, 2004, p.35). The snake is the traditional mating partner of Dionysus, the bull, and at one point Agave and Dionysus make love whilst clinging on to the handles and footholds half way up the backdrop.
The struggle for power between Pentheus and Dionysus is expressed through their opposing views on boundaries. Pentheus rules by imposing boundaries, and believes that a man, and especially a king, must be aware of his boundaries because 'Without them he is lost' (Grose & Murphy, p.2). But Dionysus argues the opposite: 'Without them he is free' (Grose & Murphy, p.32). He infuriates Pentheus by breaking convention and setting people free. During a heated argument Pentheus is tricked into admitting that Dionysus is a god. The actor playing Dionysus (Róbert Lucskay) was from Hungary and occasionally spoke in Hungarian, which Coryphaeus, the leader of the Bacchants, translated into English:
DIONYSUS (Hungarian) Accept me for what I am! CORYPHAEUS Accept me for what I am! PENTHEUS What is that? DIONYSUS (Hungarian) A God. CORYPHAEUS A God! PENTHEUS You're a God? CORYPHAEUS Yes. No. He's a God. PENTHEUS I know he's a God - DIONYSUS Ha!
(Grose and Murphy, p.20)
Pentheus puts Dionysus in jail but the god bursts free in a scene of chaos and discord, accompanied by an attempt at a rap by a member of the chorus, unfortunately undermined by an incongruous musical backing that sounded more like a 'seventies film score than hip hop.
Dionysus then coaxes Pentheus to go and see the Bacchants with his own eyes, and initiates him with a similarly sensual sequence to the god's dance with Agave. Pentheus is stripped then re-clothed in Bacchic attire. 'You look like your mother...', Dionysus comments to the king, who is concerned that the Bacchants might laugh at him, but Dionysus then turns to the audience and continues: 'He is dressed for death' (Grose & Murphy, p.33). Pentheus' death is preceded immediately by the sparagmos of a lamb who has strayed into the woods: the Bacchants tease it and chase it about before tossing it to Agave, at the top of the backdrop, who rips off its head and smears herself in its gore. By this point in the performance she is topless, wearing only a full, red skirt which blends with the bloodstains over her skin. She looked suitably fierce and impressive, resembling an image from a Greek vase. When Pentheus is spotted by the Bacchants, Agave descends from the backdrop, surrounded by the chorus who are by now wearing frightening headgear that makes them resemble members of the Ku Klux Clan, and she engages in an erotic grapple with her son. Loud, discordant music in the style of The Prodigy fills the auditorium as Pentheus is stripped completely naked: he is vulnerable, uncovered from his disguise and exposed in his essence, as a man. But Agave is possessed, she rips Pentheus to shreds with her own hands, and Dionysus the avenger descends triumphantly to the stage.
The chorus in The Bacchae were all male and opened the play by becoming effeminised and dressing themselves in floating, ballerina style skirts. Kneehigh are obsessed with twisting fairytales and turning them into them corrupt and skewed parodies, and this juxtaposition of hairy chests and tutus was a case in point. Another trademark of the company was that the chorus all played instruments. It is a feature of Kneehigh that their cast always provide live music, and in this production music was specifically linked to the chorus: many of the choral odes were sung, or rapped as was the case during Dionysus' imprisonment.
Despite the promising premise of such a highly acclaimed company turning their hand to Euripides' masterpiece, the production suffers from too many stylistic and artistic lapses in judgement, resulting ultimately in a series of crude comic turns. For instance, the chorus use the blackboard, upon which they had previously charted out Dionysus' family tree, to involve the audience in a sing-along. Although many of the audience joined in, this terrible artistic mistake lowered the tone of the production beyond redemption. It was not entirely out of place in the production, as there were plenty of other moments of pure triviality, but it was just one of several instances where the level of comedy was lowered uncomfortably too far.
The portrayal of Dionysus was typically Kneehigh: the already tall Hungarian actor was dressed in high heels, a pinstripe suit with a corset underneath, and a tall, red, phallic hat which made him look like a Tommy Cooperesque gnome. He pranced about the stage like a poor comedian in a show at a holiday park and causing the audience to wonder just what it was about him that caused so many people to follow him and worship him. At the end of the play, as deus ex machina, he appeared at the back of the auditorium, now dressed in a long, white ball gown and an even taller white version of the hat he had previously been wearing. He made his way through the audience to the stage, where he was then attached to flying machinery and suspended several feet above the surface, ready to pronounce his concluding sentence on Agave: 'It would have been better if you had never been born' (Grose & Murphy, p.42).
The production smacked of Kneehigh throughout: the obligatory use of NHS spectacles, obsession with underwear, low quality farce and each of the characters fitting into the traditional Kneehigh stereotypes of spirited, tragic female, bald headed comic male and pathetic female geek - the last of these, in this production, an additional character to the plot, the king's awkward and doggishly devoted PA, Pamela. There were moments of inspiration, such as the recurring use of newspaper for props: the chorus set about making their own thyrsuses from rolled-up newspaper which they then cut into strips at the top with scissors; the child to which Semele gave birth was a piece of newspaper that, when unfolded, was revealed to be cut in the shape of a baby; the army who went to capture Dionysus were firstly represented by a chain of paper dolls, and then by stacks of newspapers (which made rather effective marching noises when rocked backwards and forwards by the actors behind them); and once Agave realised she had killed Pentheus she wrapped his severed head in sheets of newspaper and carried it around as if she was cradling a baby. There appeared to be no thematic significance in the use of newspaper; it was merely an aspect of their rough, improvisatory style but it functioned brilliantly on its simplistic level. There were moments of beauty as well: Éva Magyar who played Agave, and who is also from Hungary, has exquisite physicality. She is a pleasure to watch and it is thanks to her and the director, Emma Rice, that there were some beautiful sections of choreography in the production. Spare ballerina skirts suspended from the ceiling and moved up and down to represent the Bacchants dancing and swirling around Pentheus in the woods, dehumanising the now hollow revellers while cleverly representing more people on stage than the cast could provide.
But the thing that let the production down altogether was the silliness. Kneehigh's concept of comedy is excruciating. The actors, most of whom must surely be capable of greater things, constantly revert to pulling faces at the audience and doing anything within their power to get a cheap laugh. It is tragic to see the audience laughing because they are prompted to do so by the actors pulling a stupid face, rather than because it is actually funny. For me, the greatest moment of comedy in the play was one that wasn't even meant to happen: one of the bundles of newspaper that was representing a soldier standing to attention fell over unexpectedly and the subsequent ad libbing by Giles King, who played Pentheus, was by far the most genuinely comic moment in the entire performance. Despite a few isolated moments of beauty and inspiration, as a whole, Kneehigh's The Bacchae was simply banal.
Elizabeth Stewart graduated in English and Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick in 2002 and has since returned to live in her homeland of Cornwall. She has written, directed and acted in numerous plays. In 2000 she worked as Assistant Director on a devised piece called Dionysos at the Warwick Arts Centre. She now works as administrator for ArtsMatrix, a European funded Continuing Professional Development project for artists across the South West.