Euripides’ work was featured for a second time in a row by the Classical Society, last year’s performance being the tragedy of Medea. This year was a hippie-orgy-Gagaesque rendition of Bacchai translated by Colin Teevan and directed by David Bullen. From the start of the play you feel as if you’ve been locked up in a cult meeting, where “all here shall join the dark side.” Indeed, Dionysus, the Greek god of chaos and ecstasy, did have cult pockets of followers in ancient Greece, and the Choruphaios should be deservedly applauded for presenting a fully convincing rendition of madness, the delusional, and utter possession by Dionysus.
If anyone ever watched Disney’s original 1940s Fantasia as a child (which should really be the definition of surrealism) they saw Dionysus as a ridiculous fat, jovial clown-of-a-god drunk off his own wine and running after centaur women to the third movement of Beethoven’s sixth symphony. Up until a year or two ago I envisioned Dionysus as a type of Sir Toby or the celebrated Falstaff, a general fool with a love for sack and the pleasures of life. Bacchai’s Dionysus, though, is a destructive and unforgiving god who tears apart the ruling family of Thebes and banishes the Theban woman. He is made all the more threatening with his complete domination of sexuality in his cross gender identification, often described in literature as “man-womanish”, a beautiful, sensuous youth with all the harnessed power of a son of Zeus. Perhaps this is why Bacchai posters advertising the show around campus featured Zuri Warren in a long blonde wig.
Zuri Warren played a strangely happy-go-lucky Dionysus who towards the end of the play changed into a thundering god (the more convincing performance), appearing on stage in a Gagaesque silver shoulder-winged breastplate (another one of Heather Rimmington’s spectacular creations), glittering like a rock and roll god. Freddie Clayton, who has been nominated as Best Actor in this year’s RHOscars, was an excellent Pentheus for who you feel a pity towards despite his arrogance and misogyny as he plays into Dionysus’ “sadistic manipulation” as quoted by Dr. Nick Lowe on “An essay on Bacchai”. Indeed, the ending was the most powerful and gripping part of the play, Daisy Jervis as Agave (Pentheus’ mother) and Joel Sport as Cadmus (Pentheus’ grandfather, Agave’s father) giving commendable performances in their sorrow at Pentheus’ death.
The scenes with the bacchic chorus were some of the strongest throughout the play, and the choruphaios should be deservedly applauded. However, the chorus scenes, perhaps expectantly so, were some of the most exhausting. Their ecstatic yells and the music which at times accompanied them kept the tension incredibly high. Sometimes those with dialogue were unable to be heard over the general noise. The show ran for an hour and a half and though I can understand David Bullen’s decision to not have an interval stemmed from the theatrical decision to insulate the audience in an intense Dionysian ambiance, I think those who attended would have happily benefited from a 15 minute breather.
David Bullen mixed an integral piece of Greek theatre and mythology strangely well with the contemporary world. The famed Tiresias was dressed as a hippie with John Lennon glasses, and halfway through the choruphaios had a Lady Gaga Monster dance crossed with Michel Jackson’s classic Thriller moves. Strangely, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the Dionysian ecstasy which Euripides’ Bacchai holds can be found in and is relevant to modern day society. It is this connection which David Bullen wished to explore and which I believe this year’s Classical Society’s production of Bacchai duly portrays.