In blood: The Bacchae, Arcola Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Tuesday 13 January 2009 01:00

It sounded such a good idea: the true story of a legendary Brazilian slave leader fired up as a re-working of the Dionysus legend in Euripides' The Bacchae and set to the music of the forests and favelas of the 1920s, acted by a cast trained in capoeira, the martial art of dance and drumming. In the end, Noah Birksted-Breen's production is a good example of a story without a soul and a project without a passion.

There is no questioning the actors' commitment. They are led by Greg Hicks, a devoted practitioner of capoeira, in the Pentheus role of Gordilho, the police chief. But you feel they are all involved in a private workout rather than an urge to communicate. The movement, arranged by capoeira guru Carlo Alexandre Teixeira da Silva, looks like a training session for judo contestants. The musicians play tambourines and bongos, and a few march on and off with large, single-strung bows, plucking wanly.

The script is submerged in the rather dutiful displays of basic acrobatics, meant to convey the tumult of Besouro's revolutionary campaign. The history of the Afro-Brazilians, suppressed by racism after years of slavery, is dotted with charismatic leaders like Besouro, but nothing in Daon Broni's stoic performance conveys much apart from an all-purpose spiritual dignity.

Gordilho's induction in the mysteries of capoeira, following the murder of Besouro's mother, doesn't carry the force of Pentheus's entrapment in the Dionysiac rites. Another authoritarian figure, played by the imposing David Gant, stalks the action, but it's not clear whose side he's on, if any. The sole compensation is the ever attractive Arcola atmosphere.

To 30 January (020-7503 1646)

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