The Bacchae, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Monday 22 November 2010
There are some powerful moments in Braham Murray's penetrating, stripped-down version of Euripides' play.
None of them rely on technical wizardry or magical stagecraft. They emerge from within this complex tragedy, with its central conflict between Dionysus and Pentheus. Jotham Annan is compelling in his representation of the liberating and destructive elements that bind the god's ecstatic and catastrophic rituals; Sam Alexander portrays the stubbornly intolerant yet supposedly rational young king as a slightly impatient junior executive.
In Mike Poulton's accessible new version, The Bacchae is shot through with a sense of religion. There is neither frolicsome blandness nor erotic playfulness, though there is comedy when two Theban old boys, Colin Prockter's Tiresias and Wyllie Longmore's Cadmus, attempt to join in the Bacchic celebrations.
Terence Wilton's description of Pentheus's bloody death is powerfully delivered and with the entrance of Eve Polycarpou's wonderfully monstrous yet hapless Agave the emotional temperature rises. As she holds up her dead son's head, crowing "My lion", we reel in horror with Longmore's Cadmus.
Classical costumes are given a contemporary twist and the chorus of spiky-haired Bacchantes, clad in black cobwebby dresses, encircle a beige floor fringed with lights. But neither the choreographer Mark Bruce nor composer Akintayo Akinbode tap into the play's scope for striking movement and meaningful music. Token use of an instrumental trio and the chorus's prancing tribal stomping leave the show low on passion. We are never dazzled by Dionysus's divinity: the Greek myth is set up, the characters identified and the narrative allowed to unfold. For some that will be enough, for others the lack of visceral excitement will detract from a principled but sombre revival.
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