Saturday 17 March 2018

Wild and fearsome creatures these Bacchae are not

MODERN classical scholarly opinion tips towards the notion that the great tragedian Euripedes, obsessed in his writing with the power of the gods, was actually a secularist, concentrating as he did on the chaos and devastation wrought by the practice of religion. And looking back more than two millennia, it's hard to argue against his having got it right if that was his credo: most man-made devastation through the centuries has been caused by the defence of god.

Classic Stage Ireland has presented a version of The Bacchae in a translation by Peter D Arnott which strikes the ear as rather unimpressively and turgidly slangy. (It's at Project in Dublin.) But its real production fault seems to be a failure to decide whether Euripedes is trying to persuade his audiences of the malevolence of any godhead, or presenting an object lesson of the fate to be expected when we transgress its "merciful" care.

That decision has to be clear in the directorial mind. But what comes across most strongly in director Andy Hinds's representation is a strong streak of early anti-feminism: when women break away from the spinning wheel and challenge men, tragedy ensues because they have distorted the natural order of things. And that certainly is what Greek and Roman society believed.

The story of the god Dionysus, in a fit of pique, taking possession of the women of Thebes and "inspiring" them and their leader, the queen mother Agave, to murder all men who approach them, is suitably bloody, with its denouement of the gore-spattered insane queen carrying the head of her son King Pentheus, which she has torn from his body. She pays the price, with Thebes wiped out as a kingdom, and is herself condemned to wander the world without shelter.

It's as powerful as it is harrowing. And for its effect, we need Dionysus's followers, the Bacchae of the title, to be wild and fearsome creatures. In this production we have seven young women with singularly unresonant voices which reduce their choral chanting to shrill squeaking, costumed in pretty print summer "frocks" with matching cardis (costume design by Jill Anderson and Rosie O'Keeffe Doyle). It makes them look like 13-year-olds who have allowed their grannies to choose their wardrobe, an unlikely enough event in any case. And when they strip to their knickers in a supposed Bacchanalian frenzy, the impression is that they're heading for the showers after netball.

Fearsome they ain't.

There is a quite impressive Pentheus from Steve Cash, although one can't help wishing that cash-strapped designers could occasionally come up with something more inventive for a king than a dark suit with "royal purple" tie. And there is a fine Agave from Lesa Thurman, although the interpretation is rather too naturalistic for a woman caught between demonic possession and sanity.

For the rest (with the exception of David Ferguson and Martin Burns as the shepherd messengers), the playing is pretty awful, and again, nothing is helped by the truly terrible costumes. And Emma Martin's movement co-ordination is so bad as to be embarrassing to watch.

Sunday Independent

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