Monday, 24 August 2015

'The Bakkhai' at The Almeida Theatre

Two weeks ago we went to see 'The Bakkhai' by Euripedes at the Almeida Theatre as part of its Greeks Season. I'm not entirely sure why it has a Greek season at the moment but it's a good opportunity to see one of the earliest plays that gave us theatre as we know it today. It's a play written to be performed at the ancient festival of Dionysius to demonstrate the superiority of the god and his worshippers, with minimal characters but big chorus.

A stranger appears and says he is going to Athens to teach the lord Pentheus a lesson for denying Dionyius is the son of Zeus. The women vanish into the hills to practice strange rites as the stranger appears before Pentheus to debate the rights and wongs of the women having lives of their own. He persuades Pentheus to don women's clothing to spy on the women in the hills which is a trick by the god to humiliate Pantheus. He is killed by the women - by his own mother who dosn't recognise him - and his body taken back to Athen in bits to celebrate the superiority of women. But then the god appears to dispense justice and no-one comes out of it smelling of roses - except the god.

It's a powerful play and one of the earliest Greek plays to survive the passage of time. It's deeply allegorical but still holds messages for us today. It stars Ben Whishaw as the stranger/god and Bertie Carvell as Pentheus and his mother who kills him. It was part mesmerising and part annoying, particularly the long pauses given to the chorus to chant and sing, but the overall power of the piece was never lost. In some sense, it's just as valid today.

Why is dressing in women's clothing meant to be demeaning? Iggy Pop posted a photo of him in a dress a few years ago to say he didn't think it was shameful to wear women's clothes since it wasn't shameful to be a woman and that's still relevant. Dionysius appears wearing a dress for most of the play and persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman to shame and ridicule him but, in the final scene, Dionysius appears wearing horns as an angry and revengeful god. You can probably read a lot into that.

No comments: