Almeida Theatre, London, Saturday 22nd March, 2015
This new version of Euripides’s tragedy by Anne Carson has more laughs than you might expect. Observations about wine and women being a bad mix, for example, bring bathos to high drama and round out the humanity of the characters – this we can relate to if not their extraordinary circumstances. The staging is simple: distant hills are suggested by mounds, over which the cast clamber and stalk like goats, and the mechanics of the theatre are brought into use without artifice: a lighting rig like a flying saucer hovers above the stage, mist billows from a smoke machine…
Out steps Dionysus, god of (among other things) the theatre; the sublime Ben Whishaw captivates from the off. He is more than human, he tells us, and we believe him. Whishaw’s slight physique and rich voice (I’m trying not to think of Paddington Bear) along with a winning smile and androgynous appearance (like Conchita Wurst on her day off) have both appeal and a suggestion of power kept in check. Sly humour twinkles in his baby blues. He has the god’s duality down pat.
Scenes are punctuated by a chorus of nine women. They are acolytes as well as commentators and their timing is impeccable, in their a capella singing and the beating of their staffs. There is a hypnotic quality to them: Orlando Gough’s compositions have a Greco-Baltic feel to them. I expect they will work themselves into ekstasis as the action approaches its gory climax. But they don’t. Pity.
The splendid Bertie Carvel is calm and business-like as King Pentheus, dispensing orders to random members of the audience, “You go and burn his house down”. He is cool-headed and efficient – until, in a scene that foreshadows Pilate and Jesus, he encounters the hippy from Hell in close quarters, and is persuaded to go and witness for himself scenes of Bacchic ritualised mayhem, dressed as a woman. Carvel is dignified and stately in his female garb, like a greying Jerry Hall. He later appears as Pentheus’s mother, Agave, who is brought to realise what a terrible thing she has done to her own son.
Also excellent is Kevin Harvey in a range of parts: the elderly Cadmus, for example. It is the trio of men in the company who convey all the drama about which the chorus of women will comment. The men are the action, the women are the colour and the flavour.
The violence, as is the convention, takes place off-stage and is then described; our imaginations work better than any special effects – leading to a chilling and powerful denouement of sheer horror, as the god metes out his punishments to all and sundry.
It’s the power of the drama that affects, a couple of millennia down the line, in this stark yet engaging production. Whishaw shines, Carvel and Harvey add weight to Anne Carson’s lively and evocative script. James Macdonald’s direction, (using other-worldly sound design by Paul Arditti, and sudden, sharp lighting changes by Peter Mumford) takes us into a fantasy world where the outlandish events can take place. There are links to us: plastic bags, wheeled suitcases and so on, but it’s the human element that hits home. You could link it with modern-day parallels about the excesses of religiously-motivated violence but for me it’s the longevity of a play and ancient theatrical conventions that strike at us in primal and esoteric ways that, like proud Pentheus, has me in pieces.
I emerge stunned into the Islington sunshine, having been engaged intellectually and emotionally. The line that sticks with me refers to another gift of Dionysus to mankind: “Wine is the cure for being human.” Now, there’s a religion I can relate to!