Bakkhai at the Almeida


Continuing the Almeida’s Greeks season, Ben Whishaw stars in a proficient albeit rather anti-climactic staging of Euripides’ The Bacchae

Perhaps more familiar to audiences than Oresteia, the previous play in the season, Bakkhai tells the story of the ill-fated House of Thebes who refuse to honour Dionysus as a God. It is a play of colossal achievement and magnitude. Even now, almost 2,500 years since it was written, its themes are of profound, metaphysical significance. It grapples with one of the fundamental dichotomies of the human condition. Are we ordered and rational beings? Or are we possessed by our senses, bound by unconscious desires? And which holds greater power over us, the reasonable judiciousness of the state? Or the mysterious, sensual, exalting allure of religion?

And just like today, the play doesn’t have any answers to these questions. Pentheus, the King of Thebes, who refuses to honour Dionysus does meet his tragic end. His mother mutilates him in a Bacchic frenzy; but then we are left to question, is this tragic end an invective against mindless zealotry? Or should we ourselves beware to honour the Gods, lest we meet their wrath?

Ben Whishaw in Bakkhai

Director James Macdonald revels in the play’s delicious ambiguity, strongly emphasising the play’s gender-bending. Whishaw’s Dionysus is an androgynous rock star, wearing a tight, long-flowing dress, with long, thick, but distinctively masculine, matted black hair. He mischievously prances and coos, at once alien and familiar. He is undeniably excellent and it is worth going just for him (and I imagine many will.)

Whishaw’s subtle sexual ambiguity is placed in stark contrast with the ungainly transfiguration of Bertie Carvel as Pentheus, who transforms from impassive politician, in sharp suit and elegant, determined poise, to gauche and graceless transvestite in order to spy on the women indulging in the Dionysian rites.

Carvel won the Olivier award for his performance as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, and he reprises this matronly transvestism in Bakkhai – as Pentheus decks himself out in his mother’s clothes. Pentheus’ transvestitism is not sexually ambiguous, curious or enticing, but crass and ludicrous. It is also hugely amusing, bringing a lot of humour to the production, but humour that is not without purpose.

Ben Whishaw and Kevin Harvey in Bakkhai. Almeida Theatre. Credit Marc Brenner.jpg

One of the enduring images in the press last week was that of the Lord Sewel, coked up, a cigarette breezily hanging from his fingertips, a lurid, pink bra strapped around his bulging frame. In an amusing coincidence, it almost seems as if Lord Sewel’s public humiliation is staged before our eyes once more, as Carvel’s Pentheus degenerates from Apollonian Statesman to Dionysian Fool. It’s a reminder that some things never change, and why the Greeks are just as relevant today as they were millennia ago.

Yet, in spite of these stand-out performances, the production seems all too ordered and rational to really pack a Bacchic punch. The female chorus’s close-harmony song, expertly composed by Orlando Gough, is undeniably impressive; but is too harmonious to inspire us with overwhelming, Dionysian wildness. Their Dionysian rites seem more like a school outing by St. Trinians than a licentious, all-consuming celebration of the sublime.

This lack of bite really holds the production back, rendering it a well-structured, well-produced staging of a classic text, rather than a divine or transcendental ode to the God of Theatre. It’s a shame, because Whishaw and Carvel’s performances almost reach such dizzying heights.

Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida St, London N1 1TA, until 19th September 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.