Following Robert Icke’s radical Oresteia (widely praised and now set to transfer to Trafalgar Studios), the second production in the “Almeida Greeks” season is James Macdonald’s take on Euripides’s Bakkhai. The production is, of course, highly anticipated, not least because of its pairing of Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus, the cousins whose conflict embodies an archetypal face-off between wildness and rationality. Like Icke’s, the production proves a mixed offering ultimately, with some questionable elements combined with startling moments that serve the primal weirdness and danger of the text well. “On some level,” as Carvel has wryly noted in interview, “Bakkhai is just a family drama where someone said something nasty a couple of generations ago and this is the revenge.”
Macdonald was responsible for one of my all-time favourite Almeida productions in A Delicate Balance (2011) but he doesn’t manage to bring quite the same level of total assurance to this venture. At times - the report of Pentheus death, for one - the proceedings are surprisingly dull and feel under-directed. Despite such problems of pace, however, the production’s assets include a sound translation by Anne Carson that boasts some of the qualities of her recent Antigone: intelligence, clarity, occasional wry humour. (“Man against Gods? Never works.”) With a spare design by Antony McDonald, and a predominantly traditional approach overall, the production also avoids the elements of Warner/van Hove pastiche that slightly marred Oresteia for me. (No screens! No mics! No pop songs, yay!)
The apportioning of roles harks back to Greek models, with Carvel and Whishaw supplementing their Pentheus/Dionysos double with turns as Tiresias and Messenger (Whishaw) and Agave (Carvel). Kevin Harvey plays Kadmos and Shepherd, and the cast is completed by a formidable ten-strong female Chorus: Amiera Darwish, Aruhan Galieva, Eugenia Georgieva, Kaisa Hammarlund, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, and Belinda Sykes.
The ululations, keening and chants of this posse (compositions by Orlando Gough) are dividing opinion: the guy seated to my left sighed and put his head in his hands at the women’s every appearance. But I’d argue that Macdonald succeeds in making the Chorus crucial to the tone and texture of the production, even if the amount of hearty thyrsus-stomping that goes on becomes headache-inducing by the end.
The evening boasts arresting moments, and the performances of its leads are about all that you could wish for. Signalling Pentheus’s recourse to rationality by having him attired in a suit may be an over-obvious touch, but Carvel is skillful at conveying the character’s arrogance and misogyny as he denies Dionysos’s status as deity. It’s clear from the off that, unlike Pentheus, Whishaw’s Dionysos has no difficulty whatsoever with duality: long-haired, dress-clad, he’s a waifish rock star androgyne. It’s a role that the mercurial Whishaw seems born to play and he inhabits it with absolute intelligence, feeling and unpredictability here. Nothing feels forced, everything is fresh: the performance has both intensity and absolute casualness. Still, if the evening gains much of its interest from the actor’s uncanny presence it’s actually left to Carvel to best incarnate Dionysian frenzy with a memorably mad matronly exit as Pentheus prepares to spy on Dionysos’ female followers and an even more startling re-appearance as Agave. “Darkness is serious,” Dionysos reminds us. At its finest, MacDonald’s production illuminates this play’s darkness intelligently and hauntingly.
The production is booking until 19th September.