The second production in the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season sees Euripides’ Bakkhai performed in a new version by Anne Carson, directed by James Macdonald. With a cast of three plus a chorus, it aims to replicate the original structure of the drama, against a plain but effective, unobtrusively modern backdrop.
Ben Wishaw stars as Dionysus, the demigod who objects when he feels the citizens of Thebes are not worshipping him enough. With malignant glee he plans the downfall of the uptight Pentheus, the besuited leader of the city. Tricking him with a plan to infiltrate Dionysus’ female worshippers, who have fled to the hills beyond Thebes, he lures him to his death.
Wishaw is superb, commanding the stage as Dionysus and appealing to the audience with charisma and a winning manner. Carvel is also excellent as Pentheus, an outwardly affable politician whose authoritarian stance leads to a distrust of the reckless abandon Dionysus stands for.
Kevin Harvey is an actor I hadn’t come across before, but I was impressed with his performances in a number of very different roles. In fact, all of the actors play varied roles in this piece, and I got the impression that Wishaw, rather than simply playing a number of different roles, was playing Dionysus playing different roles. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it gave his character an omniscient quality, and added another dimension to the play. For instance, there was a moment when Cadmus was trying to persuade Pentheus that he should be pragmatic about Dionysus and say that he believes in him even if he doesn’t, for the sake of keeping the peace. And Wishaw’s Tiresias, standing to one side, seemed to be listening rather thoughtfully, as if he was actually Dionysus all along and noticing that Cadmus’ belief in him wasn’t quite as sincere as he had thought.
The chorus are a memorable part of this production: they are obviously talented and well rehearsed, and are an extremely strong ensemble. However, I thought that they had too much stage time, which slowed down the action somewhat, and their presence did get a little repetitive after a while. In general, though, I thought that this was an incredibly strong play and a worthy successor to the Oresteia.