Bakkhai, Almeida, review: Glorious justice is done to Orlando Gough's a capella music

The Bakkhai chorus, who start off looking like Glastonbury trippers, are transformed into wild women, pounding the stage with their thyrsuses

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The Almeida's Greeks season kicked off with Robert Icke's bold reinvention of the Oresteia that ditched most of the conventions of ancient Attic drama. 

James Macdonald's production of the Bakkhai is ostensibly more traditional, with its heavy emphasis on the Chorus and its return to the practice of three main actors playing multiple roles.  But I still felt that I was seeing Euripides' late masterpiece for the first time in this strange, thrilling, brilliantly cast account of the terrible revenge that Dionysus engineers against King Pentheus for denying that his godhead and for trying to stamp out the orgiastic worship of him in Thebes. 

The duality in the nature of this half-human deity – god of wine and theatre; trigger of ecstasy and horror – generates the profound ambiguities in the play. 

Masquerading as his own chief priest, Dionysus descends to earth to lure Pentheus into his trap.  Ben Whishaw stunningly suggests his seductive and unnerving equivocality.  With his long flowing black hair and trailing fawn-skin gown, he resembles Christ disconcertingly crossed with Conchita Wurst. 

“How do I look?  Convincingly human?”, this delicate androgyne asks the audience with an amused, faintly camp knowingness.  Whishaw's Dionysus is also given to little titters of schadenfreude that hint he may be wired differently from the rest of us.

Bertie Carvel's excellent Pentheus is a crisply suited control-freak PM, the blinkered impatience of his secularist mission (and underlying jealousy) comically caught in the performance and by Anne Carson's trenchant new adaptation: “they call themselves a prayer group!  Obviously it's just sex./ I've put most of them in jail”, he snaps about the new Theban female worshippers. 

Ben-Whishaw in-Bakkhai2.jpg
Ben Whishaw stunningly suggests his seductive and unnerving equivocality (Photo credit Marc Brenner)

Showing how we secretly desire that which we repress, the play has Pentheus succumb, with suspicious promptness, to his adversary's suggestion that he clamber into drag and head off to the mountains to spy on the frenzied female rites.  “What kind of dress do you have in mind?”. 

Whishaw is superb at the sly heartlessness of the god's assistance with the styling, tucking back into place a lock of grey wig that has come loose because Carvel, now modelling  a Chanel outfit and court shoes, has already been practising his Maenad head-tossing at home.

The contrast between the sick comedy of that and the grotesquely tragic outcome is heightened here because Carvel, effacing memories of Miss Trunchbull, doubles as Pentheus's mother Agave who comes round her from her savage, divinely fomented, delirium to the agonising realisation that the bloody head she is carrying as a trophy is not that of a lion. 

Ben Whishaw and Kevin Harvey in Bakkhai (Photo credit Marc Brenner)

Whishaw, too, versatilely plays a professorial Tiresias and a stricken eye-witness reporter of the horror.   The chorus of Bakkhai, who start off looking like Glastonbury trippers, are gradually transformed into wild women, wreathed in ivy and daubed in war paint, pounding the stage with their thyrsuses. 

They do glorious justice to Orlando Gough's a capella music – ravishing beauty splintering into eerie dissonances and percussive animal yelps. Roll on Medea, the season's concluding instalment.

To 19 September; 020 7359 4404