The Bacchanals are a company dedicated to exploring text-based theatre and redefining classic works. They are not interested in clever staging & choreography, sets, costumes, props, design or technology. They want to put on good plays with good actors at affordable prices. The Bacchanals believe that passion, energy and intelligence are all that is needed to create electrifying theatre. The Bacchanals believe that theatre should be accessible to all - economically, intellectually and geographically - and that audiences shouldn't be penalised for not having been to university or not living in Wellington or Auckland.
The Bacchanals formed in February 2000 to perform Aristophanes' 405BC comedy The Frogs in the Studio 77 amphitheatre as part of 2000 Fringe Festival in Wellington. The show was a huge success with the venue packed to twice its capacity on some nights of the two-week season. The media said The Frogs was "extremely accurate and hilariously funny," "a comic highlight of Fringe 2000" and "deceptively ramshackle".
In October 2000 they staged Shakespeare's Othello in a warehouse apartment on Marion Street, with Taika Waititi (nominated for an Oscar in 2005 for his short film Two Cars, One Night) playing the title role and Carey Smith as Iago. The show's principle agenda was to heighten the intensity of the play by placing it in a tiny, intimate space and to demonstrate how easily Shakespearean language can be made to sound like normal everyday speech. The Dominion's Tim O'Brien said "this is an Othello that gets everything that really matters right" and said the production was "a great reminder of how understandable and vital Shakespeare is when approached with serious thought but without solemnity".
"The Bacchanals confirm the must-see status of all they do," said the NBR of Nicholas St John's Wealth and Hellbeing, which they staged at Bats Theatre in March 2001. Wealth was markedly different from previous Bacchanals shows, as it was a new work written by a New Zealander and requiring only four performers. Tim O'Brien said the production "gave the play the best argument it could hope for with strong performances and excellent, sparse production elements".
August 2001 saw The Bacchanals undertake their most ambitious project yet - a trilogy of Renaissance plays staged using the same cast for each play. Over four weeks at the Wakefield Markets they performed Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Jonson's Volpone, rotating the plays on weeknights and then on Saturdays performing all three one after the other, beginning at 3pm and finishing close to midnight. With shared meal breaks, the intent was that the actors and audience would travel the same epic journey together. The media described The Jew of Malta as "an eye-opening presentation" and "black comedy at its most extreme", Volpone as "plenty of fun" and Titus Andronicus as "worth seeing at five times the price."
The feat of performing three plays on the same day may have seemed an impossible one to better but their production of Shakespeare's Hamlet in February/March 2002, with Carey Smith playing the title role, managed to excel the achievements of the trilogy. It was a promenade-style production performed over four hours in four different and ever-changing physical spaces within the Zeal building on Victoria Street. As always The Bacchanals attempted to use merely simple costumes and props and live music to enhance the storytelling, but Hamlet also included film and video segments. "The story of Hamlet is told at great and entertaining speed," said the Evening Post's Laurie Atkinson, adding that the production provided "an excellent introduction to the full text of the play." In the Capital Times Lynn Freeman called the show "beautifully conceived" and praised the "inspired direction". Hamlet was nominated for Best Theatre at the Fringe Awards, director David Lawrence was nominated for Best Producer, and actor Erica Lowe won a Chapman Tripp (Wellington's annual awards for professional theatre) for her performance as Horatio.
The Bacchanals returned to a conventional theatre space for their production of Sarah Kane's Crave, at Bats Theatre. Like Wealth and Hellbeing, Crave required only four actors to stage and the facilities at Bats meant that the technical aspects of the production were able to be of a markedly higher quality than those productions staged in 'found' spaces. As the New Zealand professional premiere of a play by the notorious Sarah Kane, who prior to her suicide was perhaps the most important UK playwright of the 1990s, Crave was at the time the most important and groundbreaking Bacchanals production to date. Reviewing the show in the first ever edition of The Dominion Post, Tim O'Brien called it a "very fine production" and said the actors "create a seamless ensemble, exactly like a well-balanced string quartet." "My god it's beautiful," said The Package's theatre reviewer, praising the production's "excruciating depth", David Lawrence's "directive prowess" and the cast's "passion and commitment."
In January 2003 The Bacchanals fulfilled a long-held ambition to take low-cost, high-quality theatre outside of Wellington, with a suitcase production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Armed only with two cars, a trailer and four tents, in twelve short days they toured to Eastbourne, Upper Hutt, Island Bay, the Kapiti Coast, Martinborough, Dannevirke, Napier, Taupo, New Plymouth and Wanganui. They also became the first ever theatre group to appear in Parliament, with a special performance in the Legislative Council Chambers hosted by the Speaker of the House, the Rt Honourable Jonathan Hunt MP. The Dominion Post's Laurie Atkinson said Twelfth Night was "by far the most confident and successful - and certainly the funniest - of The Bacchanals' productions," New Plymouth's Daily News called it "a fabulous night," saying that "the pleasure and enjoyment the Bacchanals were having on stage was infectious," and the Wanganui Chronicle's Hazel Menehira declared, "With such multi-talented actors lifting the New Zealand cultural scene and making their work accessible, theatre-goers of all ages may rejoice."
The Bacchanals completed 2003 with a sell-out season of Euripides' 406BC tragedy The Bacchae at BATS Theatre, as part of that theatre's annual STAB season. The show incorporated specially filmed 8mm and DV sequences with the live action, using digital technology to enhance the storytelling so the destruction of the Theban palace, the thousands of revelling women and the gruesome death of Pentheus could be presented in their full glory. The NBR called it "a powerful ninety minutes", while Jonny Potts of studentz.co.nz declared it "an hour and a half of pure entertainment. It's clever, it's energetic and you're left in no doubt that The Bacchanals are to classical theatre what Jimi Hendrix is to the blues".
Hard on the heels of The Bacchae, The Bacchanals hit the road again in January 2004 with a touring production of Romeo and Juliet, with Alex Greig and Julia Harrison as Shakespeare's ill-fated lovers. "I couldn't have loved it more," said the Salient of the sell-out season at BATS in Wellington. Maryanne Burke of the Sunday Star Times called it "the most engaging Shakespeare I've seen" and the NZ Listener said it was "excellent". After a sell-out season at BATS Theatre, Romeo and Juliet went on to play in Masterton, Dannevirke, Napier, Gisborne, Rotorua, Taupo, Raetihi, Taumarunui, Te Kuiti, New Plymouth and Wanganui.
Busy theatrical careers elsewhere meant that Romeo and Juliet was the only Bacchanals show of 2004, but the company returned to BATS Theatre with a vengeance (and a generous grant from Pub Charity Inc.) in January 2005 with a sell-out season of their brand new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Clever doubling and lightning-quick costume changes enabled eight actors to play twenty-four speaking roles. A Midsummer Night's Dream went on to play three different seasons over the course of 2005, visiting Masterton, Dannevirke, Waipukurau (where proceeds - a total of $4500 - were donated to the Red Cross' relief fund for victims of the Asian Tsunami), Wairoa, Gisborne, Rotorua, Cambridge, Te Kuiti, Taumarunui, Raetihi, Wanganui, the National Youth Drama School in Havelock North, Tauranga, Whangarei and Hamilton. For the last three venues it was joined in repertory by Measure For Measure. The Dominion Post said A Midsummer Night's Dream was "loud, boisterous and comical" and the Capital Times' Lynn Freeman said it was "quite honestly one of the funniest productions I've ever seen". The Waitomo News called it a "superb redefinition", Hawkes Bay Today said it was "absurd and highly entertaining" and the Waikato Times said it was "not to be missed." In addition to the plethora of critical plaudits, A Midsummer Night's Dream won Erin Banks the Most Promising Female Newcomer award at the 2005 Chapman Tripps (for her performance as Helena).
As well as managing their expanded touring circuit, in 2005 The Bacchanals also collaborated with Bovine University to present the premiere of Paul Rothwell's play Hate Crimes as BATS in March, and in October they presented the long-awaited NZ premiere of Antony Sher's play I.D. at BATS Theatre. The play, set in South Africa under apartheid, required an almost completely new line-up of actors to meet the demands of the script. The Dominion Post praised the "exciting production" and said it "should not be missed"; the Capital Times said it was "the production of the year" and the National Business Review said it was a "hugely committed production that sends a resounding challenge to all the better resourced professional companies." In December I.D. was named Production of the Year at the 2005 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Malcolm Murray won the Actor of the Year award (for his performance as Demetrios Tsafendas), long-serving Bacchanal Alex Greig was named Supporting Actor of the Year award (for his portrayal of Lintwurm) and David Lawrence won Director of the Year.
For a long time it seemed like that was it for The Bacchanals, with the idea of a properly-funded permanent ensemble an un-realisable dream and with key members far too in demand elsewhere (not to mention a jaded and burnt-out artistic director). But in December 2006 The Bacchanals presented a new production of Hamlet starring Wellington actor Simon Vincent in the title role. Hamlet was staged as a community theatre production, relying on assembling actors dedicated to the play rather than trying to forge any new Bacchanals ensemble. In a complete contrast to 2002's massive, full-text, site-specific piece, this was a no frills Hamlet staged in traverse in church and community halls all over the Wellington region and charging no admission. Reviewer Maryanne Bourke said "I do not expect to see a more enjoyable production of Hamlet as long as I live" and "the entertainment value of this Hamlet is off the charts"; the Capital Times' Lynn Freeman said "Don't let the fact it's free fool you into thinking its not of a professional standard - it most certainly is, indeed, it's one of the most engaging productions seen in the Capital this year" and called it "a gift to treasure."
"It is good to report - and without making allowances for their problems - that this Lear is the best cast, best spoken, most expansive and professional of all The Bacchanals' forays into Elizabethan tragedy," wrote Laurie Atkinson in the Dominion Post. The trials of 2007 would require an entire book to document, but nevertheless, with the wonderful support of Creative NZ, the Bolton Hotel, Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School, Vince George House of Travel, Charlotte Larsen and the University of Otago, The Bacchanals pioneered Creative New Zealand's cross-sector collaboration funding scheme by presenting, in a co-production with the Fortune Theatre, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, King Lear. Proper funding meant the company were able to afford some of the best actors in the country to work alongside stalwart Bacchanals. UK actor Edward Petherbridge came out to New Zealand to play the title role, but was hospitalised by ill health within days of arriving in the country and a mere two weeks before opening night, Mick Rose took over the role. King Lear played at Te Whaea in Wellington and then at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin in August/September 2007. John Smythe called it "a fully realised, lucid, perceptive and stimulating production of a great classic." Veteran Bacchanal Erin Banks was nominated for Supporting Actress of the Year for her performance as Cordelia and the Fool at the 2007 Chapman Tripps.
2008 saw, once again, a change of direction as The Bacchanals kick-started the theatrical year at BATS with the premiere of Simon Vincent's debut as a playwright, A Renaissance Man, a swash-buckling bodice-ripper inspired by the life and poetry of John Donne. John Smythe said it was "a thrill to witness" and that "the developed script should be marketed far and wide." Reviewing the show for the Lumiere Arts Reader, Helen Sims prophetically commented, "Who knows how many more Bacchanals plays there will be as the company gets increasingly aggravated (rightly so in my opinion) at receiving little funding despite their critical and popular success. Do not miss them - they are always intelligent, entertaining and accessible." Indeed, lack of funds and resources meant there were almost two years between A Renaissance Man and the next Bacchanals project: in October 2009 key Bacchanals members David Lawrence, Alex Greig, Salesi Le'ota and Allan Henry joined forces with the Victoria University Shakespeare Club to present an eclectic, Star Wars-themed production of Shakespeare's Henry the Sixth, Part One as part of Wellington's Compleate Workes festival and as a sequel to David's earlier production of Henry V for Summer Shakespeare Wellington which featured many of the same student cast. The hope had been to present all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III but it seemed the days of those crazy Bacchanals projects were long in the past.
It seems strange and even arrogant/vainglorious to comment on the current incarnation/activties of The Bacchanals, but after that long post-2005 time in the wilderness, the company suddenly received a new lease of life in 2011 with three new shows and the beginnings of some semblance of semi-permanent ensemble once more. In January 2011 a company of 17 actors presented the premiere of Paul Rothwell's No Taste Forever! at BATS Theatre, a sprawling epic play with dozens of characters and storylines, including a conga-line of dancing vegetables and culminating in a gigantic food fight which took an hour to clean up after every show. In August 2011 they presented Dean Parker's new play Slouching Toward Bethlehem which starred Phil Grieve as New Zealand's most divisive prime minister, the late Sir Robert Muldoon, and during November 2011's general election, the same cast presented Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in a series of church hall/community centre shows. At December 2011's Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards, Phil Grieve won an outstanding performance accolade for his portrayal of Muldoon, Dean Parker won the outstanding new NZ play award for Slouching Toward Bethlehem and David Lawrence was nominated for Director of the Year. The Bacchanals collaborated with Dean Parker again in April 2012, staging his adaptation of Nicky Hager's book Other People's Wars, an expose of the truth behind NZ's involvement in Afghanistan and the US' so-called War On Terror, at BATS. In January 2013 a company of 16 Bacchanals presented Shakespeare's Coriolanus at The Long Hall, a community space in Wellington, starring stalwart Alex Greig in the title role and with many of the cast of No Taste Forever!, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Julius Caesar and Other People's Wars returning to the fold. And many of that cast returned to help celebrate The Bacchanals' 13th birthday a few months later in a new adaptation of Aristophanes' 423BC comedy The Clouds which played a sell-out season at the relocated BATS Theatre on the corner of Cuba and Dixon Streets.
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