The Greek god Dionysos, god of many names, known to the Romans as Bacchus, god of wine, of theatre, of ecstasy, of madness….a shape-shifter, embodying male and female, dark and light, worship and frenzy….is one of the most compelling in the Greek hierarchy of deities, colorful, exotic, unpredictable and dangerous. Most Greek plays were written to be performed at a festival in Athens honoring him, but he appears as a character in only one of the extant plays: Eurpides’ Bacchai.
Most of us have encountered Greek plays – at least one or two – in school, slogging through obtuse names in dusty Victorian translations, blunting the mind to numbness. Seeing them performed nowadays with our modern taste for naturalism is to be bewildered, or bored, or annoyed. What’s with all the weeping and moaning? And any theatre person will ask you, what do you do with the choruses? For these plays are mostly related by groups of men or women acting and speaking in unison, representing us, guiding our take on events, and describing the action – which mostly takes place offstage.
As befits an art that evolved from the worship of such a deity, attending the theatre at its best is – should be – transformative. And so it was in the recent production of Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre in London, where Dionysos’ own play leapt to life with shocking, evocative electricity. In a new version by the brilliant poet Anne Carson, this production had nestled in its center a jewel of a performance by Ben Whishaw, as Dionysos. When he first appears and declares that he has changed his form in order to appear to the locals, and asks if he is convincingly human, one believed in a flash that the actor had just slipped on this body as if a shirt, an androgynous, long-haired, loose-limbed, seductive body perfectly suited to the purpose of convincing us to come along with him. He was sly and funny, petulant, childish and utterly charming, absolutely authoritative and alarmingly magnetic, so much so that we followed him right into the depths of violence and bloodshed.
Whishaw was assisted by a chorus of foreign women, followers, travelers, who did his bidding, loved him, celebrated and sang him, and feared him more than a little. The choruses were set to shifting tone clusters of music by Orlando Gough, sometimes soft and lilting, sometimes harsh, sometimes delirious….always pulling us along into the story as it unfolded. These actresses were formidable musicians, defining their “otherness” with sound as well as movement.
A harrowing performance by Kevin Harvey as the Herdsman brought the impact of this alien cult to life. As the witness who relates the descent into madness by local women mesmerized by the god, Mr. Harvey allowed us to experience the unimaginable violence and depravity of the raving women, sent into hysteria and rampage by Dionysos. The god-followers were now no longer quaint or distant or foreign, but neighbors and wives, transformed and utterly terrifying.
To be riveted to your seat by a 2500-year-old play is a testament to the power of theatre, the playwright, the production, and the universal human ideas and emotions represented. A reminder to all readers of plays everywhere – go see a production. The play is the blueprint, and the work of art is created right before your eyes. Transformation!