The Bacchae, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The tutus are in place, swaying gently on coat-hangers above the stage, the wide- open eye on the backcloth stares unblinkingly out, and the versatile, 10-strong Kneehigh company from Cornwall is preparing for another evening of Bacchic rites.

The tutus are in place, swaying gently on coat-hangers above the stage, the wide- open eye on the backcloth stares unblinkingly out, and the versatile, 10-strong Kneehigh company from Cornwall is preparing for another evening of Bacchic rites. On come the men in girdles and suspenders, on go the tutus in place of fawnskins: the chorus and female worshippers of Dionysus are ready for action. Kneehigh's dramatically engaging version of The Bacchae is not in Euripides' words, but in a new take by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy.

In keeping with ancient theatre, there are no shifts of scene. A few brief messages are scribbled on a blackboard, a climbing frame suggests the mountain and liberal use is made of a seemingly bottomless jug of red wine: "so much can change after a little wine". The Greek myth is simply set up, the characters clearly and wittily identified. The main thrust is the punishment of Pentheus, King of Thebes, who denies Dionysus his divinity and tries to prevent his ecstatic rites. The women of Thebes, victims of men and driven mad by the offended god, take their revenge with a devouring passion - and with this company it would have been no surprise to find the maenads gorging on raw flesh.

Emma Rice's production unfolds with an abundance of novel ideas, an assured mastery of a wide range of physical theatrical tools and even some good gags, as Pentheus stumbles uncomprehendingly towards his savage death.

But the seductively malevolent Dionysus is the god of the evening. From his first entrance to his final appearance, elevated above the bevy of slumped, orgied-out bodies scattering the stage, he is a picture of insouciance.

The cast, especially Pentheus's unfortunate mother, devastated as she recognises the son she has torn to pieces, serve Kneehigh's intricately layered creation well. Of course the audience is made very much a part of these Greek games and, though expected to use its imagination, the sound effects are strikingly immediate, with song and music an integral part of the action. From the rioting sparked by political crisis outside the royal palace of Thebes and the shattering earthquake which destroys it, to spooky supernatural sounds and the ecstatic frenzy of the mountain orgies, this show is as much an aural as a visual delight.

West Yorkshire Playhouse (0113-213 7700) until Saturday; Liverpool Playhouse (0151-709 4776) 19-23 October; Salisbury Playhouse (01722 320333) 26-30 October; Lyric Hammersmith (020-8741 2311) 2-20 November

Comments