Review – The Bacchae, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Saturday 8 September 2007

Picture it. Macedonia, 407 BC. The house clearance people are rummaging through the late Mr Euripides‘ attic (they probably didn’t call them attics though as that would be the equivalent of calling your loft an “of, relating to, or characteristic of ancient London or Londoners”).

It’s slim pickings, as his wives (Choerile and Melito) and children have already swept through the house and made off with any whatever the ancient Greek equivalent of Clarice Cliff was.

All that’s left to go through is a box old papers – some wine bills, a “Third Prize” rosette from the 355 BC Dionysia dramatic festival and a few unsigned nuisance letters in a hand looking suspiciously like that of Aristophanes (according to Wikipedia, Euripides’ daughter was killed after a rabid dog attacked her but “some say this was merely a joke made by Aristophanes, who often poked fun at Euripides”; he was a card, that Aristophanes, wasn’t he?).

Anyway, at the bottom of the box is the script of a play that has never seen the light of day for some reason; history does not record whether or not a rejection letter from the Bill Kenwright of the age was pinned to it.

Perhaps among the house clearance party was some resting actor who recognised that here was something that should be rescued from the box before it was thrown on the bonfire along with the togas that the Oxfam shop wouldn’t take.

Anyway, fast-forward by some two and a half millennia and what do you know? The Bacchae is still being revived, this time at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in a new version by David Greig for the National Theatre of Scotland which has arrived hot foot from the Edinburgh Festival.

Now making a play this old interesting and engaging to anyone other than academics, historians and serious theatre fans is quite a challenge but director John Tiffany has wisely gone for spectacle.

Dionysus (Alan Cumming) makes his entrance head first from the flies, giving the audience an eyeful of his buttocks, there are magic tulips, geriatric tap dancing, a wall of fire, an excellent severed head (one of the best the Whingers have ever seen) and – most excitingly of all – a river of red wine which flowed down the stage. It was probably for the best that Phil was unable to make this outing as it would have been hard work to prevent him from rushing forward and lying on his back, mouth open to catch the wine as it trickled off the stage.

The chorus comprises 10 black women of varying sizes ranging from elfin to “traditionally built” in vibrant red dresses who sing, although what they were singing was anyone’s guess for most of the time. Anyway, it was more entertaining than if they had just been speaking.

This we know because there are great swathes of testimony in which we are told – at great length – about very interesting-sounding scenes which have taken place off stage.

It’s all backed up with some first rate performances. Cumming is in his element as the sexually ambiguous Dionysus (“For your benefit I appear in human form. Like you. Fleshy. Man? Woman? It was a close run thing”), playing up the comic mischief of the god and (usually) stopping just short of Rocky Horror territory.

Tony Curran as Pentheus, the King of Thebes, delivers a particularly delicious scene when at Dionysus’ suggestion he disguises himself as a Theban woman to infiltrate the Theban women’s rituals in the mountain.

Paola Dionisotti (right, whose CV, the Whingers are thrilled to note, includes the 70s classic TV series Within These Walls starring Googie Withers) gives a great performance in that old cliché role of “woman who snaps out of it to discover that the mountain lion head she thought she was holding is actually the head of her son”.

And we can’t end this highlight performances run-down without mentioning the first rate cartwheel by chorus member Marcia Mantack.

All in all, a quite satisfying evening out. The entire party (which featured Helen Smith, City Slicker, Interval Drinks and a frighteningly young Josh) seemed to agree on all the points although with a very civilized 90 minutes of drinking time available post-show, some of those points became less than clear towards the end. Phil would have been in his element.
Useful information

A. It’s pronounced back-eye so now you can phone for tickets with confidence instead of doing it online or getting a friend to phone up for you.

B. It’s one hour and 40 minutes with no interval so go to the toilet before you go in.

C. It’s very hot in the theatre so take a bottle of water in with you (but see B.).

7 Responses to “Review – The Bacchae, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith”

  1. Pleased to see you enjoyed this – we had a couple of comments after our review from people who hated it with a passion. Particularly glad it went down well in London as I’d felt the tone was aimed at a Scottish audience. But then maybe I shouldn’t have doubted – it got good reviews in Edinburgh and how many Scottish people can there possibly have been there???

    As for the ‘wall of fire’, we were in row F and even forewarned I couldn’t constrain an audible expletive as we were hit by the blast of heat. I had a friend attending the next day’s performance in Row A and all I could do was advise her to take a fork and some marshmallows.

  2. Also, is it just me, or does Tony Curran as Pentheus bear a passing resemblance to Cumming’s old Victor-&-Barry partner Forbes Masson? Is the vengeance motif in the play itself being matched in some super-subtle way in the production?

  3. Ian Says:

    Also do take in some strong dark glasses for the final scenes. The director has seen fit to point the equivalent of the Eddystone Lighthouse directly into the audience’s eyes. Not pleasant.

    Other than that a hugely enjoyable production.

    At a (self confessed) age of 43 Cummings is not in bad shape!

  4. DaveJ Says:

    Innovative – engaing and bloody – Worth it for Alan Cumming’s performance alone!

  5. Eve Says:

    This wasn’t for me although loved a) the poppies and b) Ewan Cooper.

    But highlight was when one of the chorus’ dresses split up the side with a glorious Riiiiiip! just as they were chucking themselves about summoning up that earthquake (and British Gas). She then gave the audience a big, lovely, embarrassed smile.

  6. Fatima Says:

    well i thought it was great
    and when Pentheus came on in that green dress i wept with glee it was hilariously shocking

  7. thierry Says:

    The show was amazing. Not doubt. Would recommend it to anybody.

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