The Bacchae: The Library Theatre, Manchester and on tour

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The Independent Culture
Euripides' The Bacchae is strong meat, literally. Its dominant image is of dismemberment, animal and then human flesh seized alive and devoured in the furthest reach of frenzy available to human kind.

Now The Library is a nice place, a cosy cup of a theatre, designed less for Bacchanalia than for Spring and Port Wine. Other venues on Kaboodle's itinerary may suit Euripides better, but interesting as it is to contemplate the startlingly different contexts of ancient Greek and modern theatre, the production does not resolve this fundamental incongruity. For this, the less traditional the performance space the better.

But for all the rawness at its heart, The Bacchae is in no sense a "primitive" play. It is the story of the coming of the disreputable but potent Dionysus to Thebes, determined to prove his lineage as a son of Zeus and claim the honour due to a god. Though despised as a foreigner by the Theban king, Pentheus, Dionysus has captivated the women of Thebes, who, led by Pentheus' own mother Agave, are now the Bacchae, living in liquid abandon beyond the city walls. Dionysus, himself ambiguously gendered, is lord and liberator of women, and the rapture he engenders transports them from their appointed place into ecstasy. The play's main conflict is therefore between this liberation and the pursed rectitude of Pentheus.

It appears to be a clash of immutable elements, but Euripides' psychological subtlety lies in the way Dionysus is able to evoke a prurient interest in the activities of the women in his enemy, and so seduce him from his fixed masculinity. Discovered in his spying, Pentheus is sundered by the Bacchae, his own mother claiming his head as a trophy. The second psychological switch is Agave's rediscovery of her former mind as the frenzy abates and the contrary face of the Dionysian rapture becomes apparent.

Happily, the complexity that surrounds Pentheus is presented with nuanced care by Lee Beagley. Softly spoken, he has no crude, tyrannical bluster about him, and he is drawn into his fatal female garments in a gentle swirl of reluctance and surprised pleasure. Kaboodle's other long-time actor, Paula Simms, takes two of the vitally important "messenger" roles, and her narration, especially the first account of the Bacchae at large, is clearly and characterfully done. This scene also provides the best visual moment, in which the company create a huge beast from a cow's skull and a vast red curtain, then hunt it down.

Otherwise, Lee Beagley's staging and Bruce Gallup's design are disappointing by Kaboodle's previous standards. The eclecticism of the costumes is unfocused, and a cumbersome piece of revolving stage machinery resembling a sawn- off caboose clutters the action. Eugene Salleh makes a puckish Taras Bulba of Dionysus, but his voice is not sufficiently commanding. Despite the ritual elements, these plays require a tremendous amount of simple, informative speaking, and, Beagley and Simms apart, this is woefully underpowered here. The result is that this great and disturbing play is not nearly disturbing enough.

n On tour to Marlborough, Birmingham, Kendal and Leicester this month, then throughout March; details: 0151-709 2818