i hold my son's head in my cursèd hands
Thursday 6 November - Saturday 15 November 2003
Bats Theatre, Wellington
Euripides' bloodiest tragedy meets Wellington's goriest company in an all-new, multi-media spectacular production of The Bacchae. Dionysus (god of theatre, wine and cheese) visits the home of his mortal mother Semele to wreak vengeance on his family for disowning him. He drives every woman in the city into a Bacchic trance, guiles the arrogant Pentheus and in true Greek Tragedy fashion, it's not over 'til someone brings on a severed head. Using their new virtual software programme R.E.N.E., The Bacchanals will populate the world of ancient Greece with exploding castles, epic battle scenes, car chases and a CGI-ed cast of thousands. Think Gone With The Wind meets Clash of the Titans meets Brotherhood of the Wolf.
Eve Middleton (Agauë), James Stewart (Dionysus, Cadmus), Alex Greig (Pentheus), Julia Harrison (Autonoë, Messenger), Irene Flanagan (Ino, Teiresias, Herdsman), in the prologue: Jocelyn Christian (Semele), Hannah Deans (Hera), Taika Cohen (Zeus)
Director of photography William J. Earl; Photography Sar Ruddenklau; Projectionist Duncan Allan; Clapper Loader Mark Cleary; 8mm edited by James Stewart & David Lawrence; Posters & Flyers Ian Freer & James Stewart; Sound Engineer Aidan Kane; Costumes constructed by Colin McLean & Cathy (Tree) Harris; Text & Music Walter J. Plinge & Evil M. Übercrave; Musicians Aidan Kane & Walter Plinge; Decapitation Moulding & Finishing Carlos Wedde; Decapitation Finishing Gareth Jenkins; Publicist Noel Meek; Stage Manager Rachel Cooke; DSM (refreshments) Julia Harrison; Production Manager Eve Middleton; Directed by David Lawrence
It was in a thermal bath in Taupo that The Bacchanals' direction for 2003 was decided upon. We were doing the venue recce for Twelfth Night in the middle of a difficult rehearsal period and Eve, James and I made much of our two days on the road to put things in perspective. There had been talk of many ideas for 2003 and for a long time it was assumed we were going to try King Lear - a plan I liked initially but came more and more to fear. King Lear is, to me, the ultimate challenge when it comes to Shakespeare. Even with our track record for getting the plays right, the odds stacked against you when trying to do King Lear are massive (I've only seen one production of it in NZ that wasn't a total disaster) and ultimately I realised I don't want to do the play until I have the right venue for it and the perfect cast, neither of which have happened yet.
To apply for STAB funding seemed a strange idea to me, because I didn't see how the essences of STAB could fit in with the ethics of The Bacchanals. The STAB season has been an annual occurrence at BATS since 1995 and was initially about the integration of theatre and technology. STAB is now generously funded by Creative New Zealand and BATS every year have about $60,000 to distribute amongst the however-many shows they end up commissioning. In 1995 there were eight STAB shows, in 1996 there were four, and in 2000 they decided to give all the money to one project, the mammoth Arrrghhh! - The Live Movie Experience, whose company included Carey, Taika and myself - in fact, Arrrghhh! opened the week after The Bacchanals' production of Othello closed. More recently, I had been engaged to work on one of the 2002 STAB commissions as a production manager. It was a job I should never have accepted but back in a period of my life in which I didn't really know how to say no to people, and marked the first (and only) time in my life I have walked out on a project. Ironically my reason for agreeing to be a part of it was partially to erase unhappy memories of Arrrghhh! (in which I'd been financially shafted). I kept waiting for a miracle but as the months dragged on, with opening night a mere three weeks away no moment of clarity or relief was in sight and I did the unthinkable - I snuck out of the rehearsal room, got all the accounts in order, paid my fee back into the co-op's bank account and wrote them a long, long letter about why I was bailing at the eleventh hour. I thought I would never work in professional theatre ever again, but rather than display my unreliability it seemed instead that I'd declared my standards - which were that I was never again going to work on something I didn't believe in.
I was therefore very surprised when the BATS folk asked if I'd considered applying for the 2003 commissioning round, and came up with a few random ideas all based on the same premise. The premise was that we'd do something epic but on a small scale - adapt an existing work so that we could use multi-media to make up for the deficiencies in the storytelling. Throughout 2002 I'd become more and more obsessed with film - due to the free weekly late-night test screenings at Rialto, I'd been exposed to all sorts of cinema I wouldn't have normally been interested in. So I pitched the initial idea to BATS and listed a number of possible stories/sources, and these were what Eve, James and I talked about that night in Taupo.
It was sad for the three of us to realise that things really were changing irrevocably and that we wouldn't be working with many of the current Bacchanals again but we were in agreement that King Lear was a ridiculous idea, and Eve was against working with another large cast. "Crave was so easy," she kept emphasising. We knew it had to be a small-cast show, and one in which we involved only those whose aspirations were as professional as ours. Not everyone in the present make-up of the group had ambitions to work professionally in theatre and we were all too aware that the 'family' aspect that had dominated the large-cast projects like the Trilogy and Hamlet had perhaps blinded us to some of the group's deficiencies.
The plan we originally discussed was The Threepenny Opera, which we thought might be a nice tie-in with the impending production of The Collective, Jean Betts' brilliant play on the Brecht authorship controversies which was programmed to run at BATS in March 2003 and which Julia and myself (and eventually James and Erica) were already engaged to work upon. We also talked about adapting The Canterbury Tales, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Ibsen's Brand, Ted Hughes' Tales From Ovid, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jeanette Winterson's The Passion. Also somewhere on the initial list of ideas we sent to BATS were two Euripides plays - Medea and The Bacchae.
The Canterbury Tales and Tales From Ovid were swiftly ruled out - there was too much material in either to be able to whittle something down into a 90-minute show and I feared we'd get too lost in the adapting process - trying to determine which bits were worth having in and which weren't. I read Heart of Darkness and couldn't see anything worthwhile in it that hadn't already been exploited by Apocalypse Now. The Passion is a beautiful, beautiful book and I have more than once sat down with it and made up notes for adapting it into a play … but the things that for me work so brilliantly about the book will not make especially vibrant theatre, I think. Brand was never really investigated as a serious prospect, which seems odd in retrospect - but maybe I'll save that for another day.
The Threepenny Opera was sadly ruled out - upon re-reading it I couldn't see how it could be done with only five or six performers, and any possibilities for multi-media seemed just to be decorative rather than essential to the storytelling. Which left Don Quixote. Don Quixote is supposedly unfilmable - Orson Welles died never having completed his version, and fate defied Terry Gilliam's attempts to make his. But sitting down to read it, I could not understand a) why, when I lived in the UK, it had been voted as the greatest novel ever by prominent literary figures or b) why Welles, Gilliam et all thought there was anything in it that would make a great film. More importantly in the scheme of things, while I could see it working as an abstract play/film about madness and distorted perception, I find that sort of filmmaking (and theatre) a little boring and clichéd, and there were no decent female characters. But for a while we persevered with the idea of Don Quixote, even though Eve was pushing for a Greek tragedy. One night during the Twelfth Night rehearsal process - it must have been close to production week - I sat in the bath and read The Bacchae (Eve's favourite), looking for any multi-media possibilities. Not only was I enormously enjoying the play - somehow it seemed much more alive and fresh, especially as I was reading a nice crisp hexameter translation that rolled off the tongue, than my previous forays into reading Euripides' works - but by the time I got to the earthquake halfway through I knew this was going to be the one.
Eve says it was while we were waiting outside the printers' for the incredibly late Twelfth Night posters that I settled on The Bacchae and described how we'd do it. The initial treatment I wrote up - four pages long, with the film segments in bold type and the theatre side in normal type - is pretty much exactly the show we ended up doing. Eve, James and I studied the treatment at length and discussed just how we might pull these things off - we needed an exploding palace, thousands of extras, a gruesome death scene for Pentheus, and an 8mm prologue. James quickly set us up a meeting with Willy Earl, whom he'd thought might be our ideal collaborator. We vaguely knew Will from Mark's time on the Avalon film & television production course - Will had a reputation as a brilliant cameraman and editor and had worked on The Trivial Pursuit World Championship, Mark's graduating film (which had starred Eve, James, Tina, John and myself). More recently he'd been working on the low-budget sci-fi feature Event 16, which James, Eve, John, Mark, Erica, Jocelyn, Adam and Alex had all had roles in. We met with Will and talked him through our treatment, hoping that at the end he would be able to tell us a) whether what we wanted to do was possible and b) whether he would be interested in being involved if the project went ahead. He was enthusiastic and didn't question any of our insane schemes, no matter how much he tried to claim afterwards that his internal monologue was saying something different (!). Our first proper pitch at BATS was the same day as the Eastbourne performance of Twelfth Night and it was tricky for James, Eve and I to have the meeting while keeping quiet to the others about what we were up to.
We made the shortlist, meaning we were one of six projects invited to develop our idea further and do a 'proper' pitch (somewhat less informal than the first meeting) in March. The treatment stayed the same but was enhanced by a more thorough breakdown of who would be in it, how it would happen and a detailed budget of how much money we needed and what we'd spend it on. We weren't as prepared for the actual pitch as we wanted to be - communication mix-ups with Will meant he wasn't ready for us and didn't have any material (he'd shown us some rough computer schematics of things like the castle) for us to take to the pitch. Nor had we pulled off any of the music we wanted to play for them. Our one actual physical item, the 8mm from Hamlet, nearly didn't happen because we left the screen at Boston Terrace and James had to go back from BATS - in rush hour traffic - to pick it up while Eve and I stalled. Never mind the insane HEAT that day which made it difficult for me to articulate or even think clearly. Or that the pitch was just days after the opening night of The Collective, which had taken a hell of a lot out of me (I'd been stage manager, lighting and sound designer, publicist and de facto production manager - and the worst was yet to come). We were finding it difficult to describe a decent visual reference point for the style of the whole thing and wanted to avoid all the Lord of the Rings clichés. The final straw was that the member of the BATS board of directors joining the management staff on the interview panel was someone my only previous dealings with had not been entirely pleasant (she was on the receiving end of me being aggressive over being ripped off on Arrrgghhh!) and, having never seen any of our shows, she quite rightly questioned how we could possibly pull the show off - and more particularly how I could direct, light, compose the music for the show and adapt the script at the same time.
We left the pitch certain we'd blown it - the idea was just too ludicrous, too expensive and we couldn't even find a decent modern film to say "It'll be like this!" to express what it was we had in mind. "Ah well," the three of us collectively sighed, "it means we can do The Winter's Tale this winter instead." A STAB season in October/November would have ruled out any other Bacchanals activities for the year. That night at Rialto we saw a test screening of the French import Brotherhood of the Wolf and, lo and behold, there was our visual reference point. "If only we'd seen this 24 hours earlier!" we growled at the end of the film.
The next day was memorable for many reasons. Not only was my marriage officially dissolved, but Jason Whyte, playing Bertolt Brecht in The Collective, suddenly came down with stomach pains and had to be admitted to hospital to have his appendix removed that very day, cancelling the rest of the season only two performances after it had opened, but to our immense surprise BATS phoned to offer us a commission. That whole week was totally bizarre - not only dealing with the fallout over The Collective's cancellation and trying to notify the media, organise a return season for later in the year, but trying to get as much preliminary STAB stuff done as possible, because at the end of the week we got the commission Eve was heading off to Sydney to spend six weeks helping out her brother and his wife with their newly-born baby.
Casting the show was straightforward enough. A traditional Greek tragedy would have had a maximum of three actors - all male and masked - playing all of the roles, with a Chorus of somewhere between 12 and 24 (Greek choruses started out with 50 but over the years during the 'golden age' of Greek drama in Athens this number gradually decreased). We thought five was a more manageable number - everyone would have one speaking role and participate in the Chorus when they weren't playing that role. Agauë was the obvious role for Eve (later, when it was announced we'd be doing Romeo and Juliet, her friends straight away said "So you'll be playing Juliet's mother?" The cliché is that Eve always plays mothers but it's not true. Yes, she was a mother in The Jew of Malta, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, The Bacchae and finally Romeo and Juliet. But Emilia and Olivia aren't mothers, and M in Crave only wants to be a mother. For me, the roles I always cast Eve in were reflected more by her incredible authority and maturity onstage). Alex would play Pentheus, and James was cast somewhat against type as Dionysus (although that James has no discernable 'type' is more reliable a cliché than Eve always playing mothers). This left Cadmus, Teiresias, the Herdsman and the Messenger to be shared amongst the other actors. Julia, who'd been absolutely brilliant in Twelfth Night and who I'd already decided would play Juliet when we toured Romeo and Juliet in 2004, was a dead cert. Erica, on the condition that she had singing lessons (everyone in the show would need to be musically confident), was an early contender for the third female vacancy; however after working on Twelfth Night, AVA and The Collective in close succession, our relationship was more than a little strained and Erica had long since had enough of The Bacchanals - she wanted to be working with actors of a higher calibre and, I think, had only done Twelfth Night out of loyalty to me and to play Viola. That, coupled with uncertainty about what role she'd have in The Bacchae - some actors aren't keen on ensemble work - and that she'd be overseas from August right up until the beginning of the rehearsal period (complicating the pre-rehearsal film sequences) meant that Twelfth Night ended up being Erica's swansong with The Bacchanals.
The joy of having a large budget was that we could actually afford whoever we wanted, but that wasn't enough for me - all the high-calibre, big-name actors in the world would mean nothing if we didn't have a company who were committed to the work. I'd first met Irene Flanagan in April 2002 when Jean Betts brought her in to read some minor roles at Playmarket's reading/workshop of The Collective. She was very quiet and focused and the only person who didn't seem to know at least one other person there intimately. By the time of the next reading of the play, in December, Jean had cast Irene as Grete Steffin (which Erica had played at the first reading) and when it came to rehearsals for The Collective through February and March 2003, I was watching Irene very closely, if for no other reason than to see why she and not Erica had ultimately been cast in the role. Jean's confidence in Irene was absolute and Irene spent that whole first rehearsal period quiet, intense, focused and committed. On the night of the season's cancellation Jean, Julia, James and I went out for a commiseratory meal and Irene joined us. She had recently been gradually coming out of her shell and was fantastic, hilarious company that night, and I was watching carefully how she interacted with Julia and James. When we began rehearsals for a revival of Fold, the Jo Randerson play Jean had directed at BATS and then Downstage in 1995, Jean had cast Irene as a last-minute replacement for another actor who'd had to pull out. In the last week of Fold's run at BATS I asked Jean whether she thought Irene would be the right sort of actor for The Bacchanals. Jean was enthusiastic and when I put the idea to James (who was also in Fold) he gave it the thumbs-up. On the last night of Fold Irene volunteered to stay behind after the pack-out and help me paint the floor, and during that evening I began sounding her out about whether she might be interested in joining us. I was well aware that really we were looking for someone who would be committing to the group long-term, not just for The Bacchae, and by the end of that evening I was completely convinced it needed to be Irene - not just her attitude in general towards the theatre industry and community, but in specifics I swiftly discovered she'd be perfect, especially when we got to talking about my plans for Romeo and Juliet - but that's another story. Irene's recruitment also made the imminent return season of The Collective great fun - James and Julia were over the moon to think she'd be joining us and the remounted Collective was a good warm-up for working on The Bacchae with Irene entrenched in the group properly.
I was ultimately very, very pleased with the finished script. I adapted it in a very short time - like the script for The Frogs, I think the first draft took about ten days in total, and had changed very little by opening night. I was really pleased with how good my grasp of pentameter was and the witty sarcasm of some lines. I got a little carried away with my excitement during the first week of rehearsals and wrote some additional lines for the sequences I was enjoying the most, like the Cadmus & Teiresias dialogue. The only section I was unhappy with was the last third, from the entrance of Agauë I wanted it to be a fantastic piece of rhetoric akin to III.i of Titus Andronicus or the lamenting queens in Richard III. At the June readthrough of the script I apologised in advance for the finale - but to my surprise it was the best bit when hearing the script aloud, and it stayed pretty much as it was right up until the season.
The only vexing parts were the Choral odes, and the music for the show in general. The Bacchanals have always taken great pride in how good our music often is, and the music for Twelfth Night - which contained more music than any Bacchanals show since The Frogs - elicited much praise over the course of the season. Turning the choral odes into songs was not going to be as easy as it had been for The Frogs, where essentially they were turned into cheesy musical numbers. Eve and I talked throughout the pre-production process about having a score for the show - something big and cinematic and epic throughout - but musically I felt very, very blocked, and of the seven songs we needed, I'd only nailed two of them by the time we started rehearsals - "The Teiresias Song" as we called it, and "Dircé sweet and holy maid". We spent the whole process working on the first choral ode but decided early on it would be chanted to a percussion accompaniment. "The Guards' Song" was a favourite of many who appreciated that we were taking the piss, but was actually a late addition to the text - the transition from "The Teiresias Song" to the guards bringing back Dionysus needed something, and Will suggested we have something to help explain the film segments that would be playing to bridge this gap. Will thought it should be something tongue-in-cheek and biblical - "And so they searched for thirty days and nights, and on the thirtieth day they found the god hiding by the river!" So one night during the first week of rehearsals I sat in the bar at Circa and wrote the lyrics, and the next day the song was in the show. The intent of those two songs - "Teiresias" and "Guards'" - was that very early on we had something bizarre and tongue-in-cheek, and the two songs were choreographed carefully to make their mockery clear. "Dircé sweet and holy maid" was a three-part harmony composed carefully with Julia, Eve and Irene's voices in mind. It started out with only two stanzas but I wrote a third verse to get us into the earthquake sequence. "The Vampire Song", as we named the ode whose lyrics began "O that the night would never end" ended up being a favourite of mine. Its tune was culled partially from music I wrote for Ariel in a production of The Tempest I directed for an amateur group in 1995. The penultimate song, as Pentheus went off to his death, gave us the most headaches - "Fly, fly, you hounds of madness". The lyrics were really abstract and not metrically consistent and we spent a long time skimming over it. At each rehearsal I'd busk something stupid on the guitar and the girls would sing something mock and glam-metal. Eventually we hit on something that worked well enough to be fun but not so well that it seemed too silly and Kiss-like. The very last song in the show, "Go toward the light", was my addition to the text - there is no choral ode at this point, but I felt ending with a piece of music was important and wrote some vague, simple, generic words (many of which seemed very funny to us - "This is a reply to John Smythe's review of Crave!" laughed Eve the first time she read the lyrics). At the first rehearsal I began playing a melancholy tune, trying to find something similar in tone to The Beatles' "Because" (from Abbey Road), and we worked the whole song out from beginning to end as a group, changing or omitting lyrics as the tune progressed. The idea was to have something akin to "A Day in the Life", John Lennon's beautiful conclusion to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "A Day in the Life", being the only song on the outside of the 'concept' book-ended by the two renditions of the title track, is the only moment of reality on an album in which The Beatles pretend to be another band. Once we settled on our 'concept' for The Bacchae - that the whole play was a Bacchic trance and that the Maenads/Bacchae/Bacchanals, as part of their Bacchic rites, act out the meeting between Dionysus and Pentheus and Pentheus' subsequent death, that rather than playing Dionysus/Pentheus/Messenger/Herdsman/Cadmus/Teiresias etc. the actors were playing Bacchic devotees acting the roles of Dionysus/Pentheus/Messenger/ Herdsman/Cadmus/Teiresias etc. - then the final song likewise became, like "A Day in the Life", the only moment of reality in the whole show.
The prologue: For the prologue it was decided we'd have a different cast to that appearing in the stage show. The advantage of the film material was that we could include Bacchanals who wouldn't be in the show but still make them feel like they'd contributed something to it. But the prologue was somewhat different to the rest of the filmed material in that it had its own compact, coherent storyline that needed to be carried by the actors. I culled the prologue from segments of The Silver Age, a Thomas Heywood play published in 1613. It's the second play in the quintet that my post-graduate university work has been dedicated to - I prepared the first edition of The Golden Age since 1611 for my MA and am doing the same with the Silver, Brazen and two parts of The Iron Age for my doctorate - and I wanted to use it chiefly because of the lines referring to the Bacchanals. We wanted three physically stunning people to play Semele, Hera and Zeus - but physically stunning people who could act. Even when she was in the Trilogy with us aged 17, Jocelyn Christian had been described as having a pre-Raphaelite sort of beauty, and she had come a long way in the film & television world since those dark old days of the original Bacchanals. I knew she'd have the look, poise and confidence to pull off Semele, as well as the vulnerability and innocence that ultimately leads to Semele's death. Oddly, the same night I asked Irene to join us, we happened to visit the bar at which Jocelyn worked and I made the offer there and then. Hannah Deans' association with The Bacchanals goes right back to the start - she lived at Boston Terrace with Carey when I first returned from the UK, and if it weren't for Hannah I'd have never met Eve or James. Hannah had also worked as publicist on the Trilogy. At a Boston Terrace party - I think it must have been the party heralding Eve's return after those six weeks in Sydney - Hannah had turned up with magnificent jewellery and a stunning dye-job and right away I thought she'd have the right smouldering look for Hera. As for Zeus ... I never imagined or considered anyone else for the role. Taika is about as close to a Greek god as any mortal I know and we were able to pin him down to some dates. I always loved the credit "and LAURENCE OLIVIER as Zeus" in Clash of the Titans and imagined a similar kind of credit in The Bacchae.
Adapting the prologue from segments of The Silver Age was an interesting exercise and I was initially mortified to see just how much text I could cut and replace with visual images. The prologue was by far the best-planned segment of The Bacchae - not only was every single line and camera set-up scripted, but the whole sequence was thoroughly storyboarded - we needed about 90 different shots for the four short scenes - and I shot a test version on a digital handicam, using Star Wars action figures in place of actors and doing all the voices myself. We allowed ourselves two days to shoot the prologue - a day's interior shooting upstairs at Jean's for the second and fourth scenes, and a day's exterior shooting for the first and third scenes. When we got to 3pm on the first day and had done about two set-ups, I began to understand just how shooting a film really works and Eve and I quickly agreed that placing a time limit on these things was silly - it was more important to get the shots we needed than to get them in two days. It took us a day and a half to do the interior scenes in Semele's bedroom. On the afternoon of the second day we moved everyone out to the Attaturk memorial to shoot the first scene and then returned to Jean's to get the last few interior shots, and then finally on the morning of the third day we took Jocelyn and Taika out to Silverstream to shoot the third scene. By the time we got to this forest scene, which was by far the weakest in the script and most boring in the storyboards, I'd worked out exactly what I was doing, Will had worked out (I think!) how to comprehend what I was on about and the actors had got their heads around the language and the style we wanted.
We shot the prologue on black & white 8mm, but also shot back-up takes on DV - so essentially we did everything twice, because we were worried that the 8mm might end up being just too hard to edit or project. Also, the nightmare of the 8mm for Hamlet only just making it back to NZ with days before the show opened was one we hadn't forgot and didn't want to endure again. We knew from the outset that the sound was going to be a nightmare. We recorded all the dialogue onto a reel-to-reel four track as well as doing a mini-disc back-up. I was sure that with clever editing we could create a useable soundtrack but also aware that we could very well have to re-do all the dialogue in post-production.
When our eight or nine reels of 8mm finally arrived, we were thrilled at how fantastic some of the shots looked but there was a hell of a lot of film to wade through when it came to editing. James and I edited the 8mm ourselves (James had bought a splicer since our 8mm adventures with Hamlet, in which we'd had to rely on the goodwill of others to cut the sequence together) over about eight sessions. It took us a full day to assemble a rough-cut of the first scene, mainly because of the difficulty of knowing which bits to use. James likes to do things meticulously and by-the-book (being a cinema projectionist by trade) whereas I favoured the hack-and-slash approach and often had to devise creative ways of getting around having accidentally snipped a vital shot right in the middle of a line. After another three sessions on each individual scene, we had a rough cut of the whole prologue. It was about 11 minutes long, whereas I wanted it to be more like 5. We saved much time simply by trimming the cuts down further and further so there was no excess at either end of the takes we'd used (this was one of the major problems of editing the 8mm - with no sound and the tiny frames, it was difficult to know where in each piece of film the take actually began and ended). Once we had it as tight as we thought we could get it, it was about 8 minutes long. I managed to effect some even more hack-and-slash surgery by working all the action shots - various shots of Jocelyn's hand on her stomach to indicate pregnancy, candles blowing out, etc. - so that the dialogue flowed over them, rather than lines being broken up by action shots.
Eve's partner Aidan had the nightmare job of assembling the sound. Initially he edited it in the same manner as we had the film itself - he got the best takes of every line, assembled them in the right order, and then started trimming time around them so they sounded natural and more or less matched up with the film. We recorded the 8mm onto a digital camera so he had a rough version of it to try and get the timing right and the idea was that, for the show, we'd start the cd and the projector at the same time so that the sound and picture were more or less in synch ... but what we discovered was that the picture varied in speed every time the 8mm was played on the projector, so at the eleventh hour we recorded it onto DV so Aidan could synch the sound up exactly on computer, and for the show we played the DV version. It was a shame to lose the whole feel and noise of having an actual projector playing the prologue, but more than worth it for Aidan's brilliant soundtrack, complete with 1930s horror film-music.
Opening credits: We really wanted The Bacchanals' logo to come up like the Lucasfilm logo at the beginning of the Star Wars films before going into the main credit sequence. Sure enough, Will was able to put a yellow/green/gold sparkle over the logo. The intial script said that the noise that accompanied the logo should be a scrapy fingers-down-blackboard kind of noise - like all the air ducts opening and closing in Alien. Will mixed the credits with a heartbeat playing throughout, to tie it into the heartbeat that concluded the 8mm prologue. Everyone's names were projected, white onto black backdrop, in OCRB font - homage to The Sopranos as far as I was concerned.
The first shot of the 'official' show was one we discussed at great length but never pulled off. The idea was to start on the palace, then zoom out slowly at first but then incredibly quickly through the city, the forest, the mountains, the outskirts and finally finish out in the wilderness with James as Dionysus appearing. It was an incredibly complex scene to try and imagine, let alone explain - a visual equivalent of the orchestra build-up at the end of "A Day in the Life" was the kind of thing I was thinking of. Actual visual reference points were the end of the Brotherhood of the Wolf trailer and the opening of Star Trek: First Contact which begins, I think, with a close-up of Patrick Stewart's eye and then gradually zooms out and out until he's just a tiny figure within a giant Borg spaceship. As a reference to this Star Trek moment, we always referred to our intended sequence as "the eye shot", even though there was never to be an eye apparent.
But it was too complex, especially for something that would feature so briefly. Eventually we shot James against a green screen, filmed some footage of the Karori hills at the back of James' house and Will put the shots together with the computer-generated palace he'd built. We never had anything in the show that really established the city of Thebes - something I'd certainly want if we were to undertake such an exercise again, but something that I don't think ultimately harmed the show too greatly.
Women leaving the city: This sequence could have gone on forever and we certainly shot much more than we could have ever used. Here is the description of the sequence in the original script:
ONSCREEN: We see footage that shows us the women leaving Thebes, passing through the woods and arriving in the wastelands. Not quite sure how this sequence could work - it could be very straightforward and linear; we see them leave their homes, travel through the streets of the city and then out through the forest. Or perhaps we see them being overtaken by the trance - they're all doing normal, everyday things and suddenly, as though possessed, abandon whatever they're doing and leave, answering the calling of the god. It could be that they start out very straight and upright as they shift through the city, and then become much more free, sensual, feral, fast with their physical movement as they get away from the city. It is important that amidst this we clearly identify AGAUË and her sisters INO and AUTONOË, and that we make clear that none of what they are doing is normal behaviour. It should be secretive, furtive, but the end result should be that suddenly we are aware that hundreds of women are involved, even though it has initially looked like only a few conspirators.
The problem was that every time we had a meeting to talk about what might go on in this sequence, a thousand new ideas came to mind. We wanted to show a variety of women all doing very ordinary, normal things and then all of them, in different places, receiving the "call" from Dionysus to abandon what they were doing, drop everything, and head out into the wilderness. Footage for this we shot included:
Several of those sequences never made it into the finished show - we realised we were saying the same thing in ten different ways when we could say it just as effectively in three. I was especially sad to lose the scene shot in the Malthouse (since it featured my cameo) but ultimately agreed with all of Will's choices here.
We never quite filmed the 'hundreds of women going through the streets in procession' that I'd hoped for, but we did a composite shot of Julia in thirteen different frocks running over the same stretch of street so that the impression was of lots of different people running off at the same time.
Guards capturing Dionysus: This was a straightforward but (I thought) effective sequence. We agonised for ages over what sort of 'guards' Pentheus would have - we were worried, as I've doubtless said, about the whole thing looking like a cheap Lord of the Rings rip-off, so we decided on a design that was more gothic and modern for Pentheus and his mob. The idea was to have an army of dark-suited men, a la all the Agent Smiths in The Matrix films. So rather than having breast-plated armies rushing out of a castle on horseback, we shot in an underground carpark. I became very fond of the wonder of digitally composited shots, as they solved our ongoing problem of never having enough extras of the right height/gender - in the carpark underneath Civic Square we filmed James' car in as many different parks as it could get into, and many different angles of black-suited folk getting into it in different formations and slamming the doors. Then we set the camera up over the top of the exit and Irene stunt-drove the car out of the carpark several times, turning a different direction each time. Then, out in the Kaitoke forest, she drove the car down the same hill several times, stopping in a different place each time. When Will had put it all together and composited it, the effect was that you saw loads of guards get into all their identical black cars, the army of black cars all hoon out of the carpark, and then one group of cars all arrive out in the forest to capture Dionysus. I could have watched the overhead shot of all the identical cars emerging from the underground carpark forever.
The earthquake: Some of the footage in this was stuff that had been shot for the previous sequence - we'd shot footage in the tunnel underneath the airport runway of various Maenads (often Julia in thirteen frocks again) running down the tunnel, with Will mounted on a skateboard (oh the joys of low budget filmmaking!!). We also got footage of guards marching James (as Dionysus) down the tunnel.
The exploding palace was entirely computer-generated and was one of Will's real centrepieces - and I believe it took him forever to do.
All the palace staff fleeing in terror was hilarious to shoot, since it was one of those days (like most) where we only had about five extras. So we kept the camera focused quite tightly on Alex, pushing his way onward through the airport tunnel while the same five extras ran frantically past him, around the back of the camera, and then frantically past Alex again - and we did this over and over again so that it looked like hoards of people running for their lives.
Pentheus' hallucinations were tough because no one - Will, Eve or I - could come up with an effective or interesting way of telling this part of the story. On the most miserable day of filming, where we were totally rained out and sheltering in Will's family's garage, we rigged up the green-screen and shot footage of Alex looking terrified and angry, lashing out at invisible attackers, and later Will composited in strange shadow things and scary noises.
The Herdsman's Tale: This was the longest and most complicated part of the show, if only because it took us forever to be able to film all of the various elements we needed. Essentially, while Irene related the tale in the stage show, we had to show the audience how a herdsman comes across the sleeping Maenads and then gathers all the local farmers together; how the farmers observe the women waking up and undertaking strange Bacchic rites in the forest; how the farmers then try to capture Agauü but are fought off by her; how the Maenads stop to slaughter all the cattle in their pursuit of the farmers; how the Maenads attack the villages and kill all the men; and finally the Maenads returning to the forest, blood-soaked, and washing the blood off in the river.
The first segment of the story was shot out in the Kaitoke forest on a freezing cold Tuesday morning in June. The sun was shining but it had been raining all week, so there was a fair bit of slipping and falling (in fact one shot that made it into the show of Natasya had to be cut right before the second she went unintentionally sliding down the bank mid-take!) The wonders of digital compositing meant that Will was able to add many more sleeping Bacchae into the footage than we actually had. We shot with Eve, Julia, Irene, Natasya and Eve's flatmate Anna as the sleeping women. Both Eve and Julia had just dyed their hair and the colours were incredible, especially when Will did a digital colour-grade to alter the colour tones somewhat. The farmers were played that morning by Alex and James (complete with ridiculous bush-shirts and beards) and a friend of Anna's called Jason, who brought his dog with him. Chucky, a border collie, was an incredible dog and more directable than some actors I've worked with. So we were able very easily to shoot Jason and Chucky coming across the sleeping women, rushing back to fetch Alex and James, and then the three of them plus dog hiding in the foliage and observing the Bacchae. It was hard to stop it looking too Lord of the Rings-ish, especially since the farmers all looked like hobbits. Shooting the women doing what Eve called in the shooting script "freaky nature shit" was a bit comical and one of those many moments where I wondered if I actually had any idea of what I was doing.
The next segment, where the men have waited until nightfall to make their move in capturing Agauë was the beginning of the many horrendous inconsistencies that prevailed through this segment. First off, we were no longer at Kaitoke but in my front and back yards. Jason and Chucky had vanished, so instead of three farmers there were now only two (Farmer Jim and Farmer Al as we'd christened them) and no dog. And the night we shot it we weren't able to have Irene, Natasya or Anna, so suddenly the Maenads were made up of Eve, Julia and the amazing Edwards sisters Zelda and Lucy. We made a giant bonfire in my front yard (beginning the sequence with homage to the shot at the end of Return of the Jedi in which Luke lights his father's funeral pyre) and shot the women dancing around the fire (the guide track on the first cut of this sequence was the music used in the rave scene in The Matrix Reloaded - again, Will's great editing made it look like the discrepancies between this and the Kaitoke footage were minimal). The combination of flame, the howling wind and the rain - it began pouring through this shoot - gave us some good footage. We shot Agauë being attacked by James and Alex in my back yard and Eve, a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, loved her big fight sequence beating James and Alex up and then trampling James into the ground as all the Maenads pursue the farmers through the forest. For all the Maenads read Eve, Julia, Zelda and Lucy; for the farmers read Alex; for through the forest read up and down my garden pathway. I'd just shifted into a new house and virtually everyone was seeing it for the first time that night. Blankets huddled under that night between takes still smell of kerosene to this day.
We never actually included the slaughter of the cows in the final show. We did actually film some cows out in Kaitoke and talked about various strategies for getting the necessary sequence filmed but it just continually got stalled until we ran out of time - and I doubt if anyone noticed it wasn't in the show.
The Maenads descending upon the villages of Hyrsae and Erythrae and massacring the townsfolk was one of those moments when I knew I was in over my head. We shot at Boston Terrace on a Friday night with about 35 extras - not only were we able to call in many friends but also roped in a bunch of Wellington Performing Arts Centre students and all of Eve's Lord of the Rings workmates. So we had a big bunch of burly farmers armed with shovels, axes and trowels, and a whole army of laurel-wreathed Maenads. Unfortunately I had no idea how to direct so many extras, especially not in the three hours we had to get the work done. Continual fire and smoke problems didn't help - with that night's wind, you'd get ten seconds into a take before the torches would all blow out. Much of the footage was terrible, simply because we had no idea how to cope with that many people and convey what we wanted. A few nights later we did some pickups using just Eve, Julia, Irene, Alex and James and got some much better footage - we had time to work out all the gore and blood and to choreograph all the fights properly. Some of my favourite moments - Irene relishing repeatedly stabbing a farmer with a pitchfork, Julia going berserk with a broken bottle - were from this night.
It was August by the time we had a morning fine enough to go back to Kaitoke and film Eve, Julia and Irene (again, availability of extras had changed once again), drenched in blood, getting into the river to wash themselves. Will and I agreed to go in the river with them when it was pointed out how sadistic our requirements were. So we stood knee-deep in the freezing water with them while they washed blood off of themselves.
Pentheus' transformation: This was one of the earliest sequences we filmed. This was shot downstairs at James' house over a single afternoon against a white backdrop. I'd wanted something akin to the sequence in Alien in which the crew of the Nostromo all wake up from hypersleep and John Hurt, on his own, slowly sits up, stretches and looks at his hand - it's all very white and each shot bleeds slowly into the next. Basically we filmed a very long, slow zoom in on Alex wearing his suit, and a very long zoom out on Alex in his Maenad disguise, and a bunch of shots to be mixed into these two - make-up being applied, his suit being ripped off etc. Will mixed it all with a pounding heartbeat sound underneath, but this couldn't be heard over the live music in the stage show. Inevitably this sequence elicited laugher from the audience most nights as it finishes with Alex seemingly transformed into a woman.
Pentheus leaving the city: This was our homage to our own work - specifically the 8mm prologue for Hamlet featuring the funeral procession of King Hamlet through the deserted streets of Wellington. I'd had the idea that we could have a similar, The Quiet Earth/Day of the Triffids-style sequence in which Pentheus, in a trance and attired as a woman, walks through the deserted city heading towards the wilderness. We shot footage in central Wellington between 5am and 9am on a Saturday morning in July. Alex, of course, was the only actor in this sequence but besides Will and myself, James, Eve and Mark were present as crew - because we really wanted a lot of footage of Alex walking in the middle of roads, we needed enough people to be able to spot traffic from all directions.
I was really in love with the notion of a shot of Alex walking down the middle of the motorway and managed to talk the others into my crazy plan. We'd estimated how much time we had between traffic lights on the town side of the motorway tunnel. Will and I set up the camera on the second overhead bridge out from the tunnel, while Eve was stationed on the first bridge where we could see her and she could see the mouth of the tunnel. Mark and James had Alex in the car and made sure that, when the lights changed on the town side of the tunnel, they were the last car to go through before the red light, giving us about 27 seconds with no traffic in which to try and get out shot. Once they were through the tunnel, Eve signalled us to start filming. Mark and James deposited Alex on the road under Eve's bridge, sped on ahead until they were clear of our bridge, and put their hazard lights on so they could then retrieve Alex at the end of the take. As we filmed, Alex walked down the middle of the motorway with Eve able to yell to him should traffic appear behind him.
The adrenalin of this one moment in the morning of filming made the whole thing worthwhile. Will and I were hysterical with terror on our bridge. Only momentary seconds of this footage actually made it into the show - every time we got a clear 5 seconds, Eve would yell and Alex would break out of his trance to scramble like a lunatic for the side of the road as a huge truck roared past.
Pentheus' death: This was another sequence that was made up of many components and took a long time to get all the necessary footage for. As a continuation of the previous sequence, we had to show Alex as Pentheus arriving in the forest, climbing a tree, witnessing all the dancing Maenads, being spotted, the Maenads tearing down the tree and pursuing Pentheus, and then finally tearing him apart on the rocks.
We'd shot Alex arriving in the Maenads' part of the forest during our first major day of shooting at Kaitoke in June; Alex climbing the tree and watching the Maenads dancing was filmed on that miserable rained out day in Will's garage in August. Rather than at the top of a tree, Alex was on his knees with strategically placed branches in front of him and a green-screen behind him. Likewise, when he looked down upon the dancing women, the over-the-shoulder shots of him were looking at a green-screen.
When we finally got to shooting the dancing women weeks and weeks later, it was at a stage where we were no longer bothered by the lack of extras and knew that we could just composite everything so long as the camera was locked off. So we went up to Victoria University and set up the camera in the carpark that looks down on the Boyd Wilson rugby field. Eve, Julia and Irene danced around miles below with several changes of frock, so when Will composited the whole thing together it looked like there were lots and lots of them. In fact, once he added the green-screen shots of Alex he discovered that everything lined up so well that he didn't need to paint out the p153ower lines or the giant floodlights.
|An early image of Will's work creating the shot in which thousands of Maenads are seen dancing. Seriously, only Eve, Julia and Irene are actually there. Note un-removed floodlights and power-lines.|
Back in Will's garage weeks earlier, we shot ridiculous footage of Alex wobbling and then falling off the top of the giant tree (in other words, Alex on his knees swaying and then falling out of shot). Even more ridiculous was the footage of Eve, Irene and Julia trying to topple the tree from below (essentially they were just pushing on a squat log carefully framed up). Cut to Kaitoke even earlier on in the filming process, where we'd achieved shots of Alex hitting the ground after falling from the tree and then being pursued through the woods and along the beach by the women.
It was a shame we only had Eve, Irene and Julia for the day in September we finally filmed Alex's death - but the gruesomeness of the sequence more than made up for the lack of extras (James, however, did spend that day in a dress and wig for long shots but ended up not being needed!). We even had a severed arm for Eve to wrench out of Alex's arm socket, and with all the fake blood the rocks by the Kaitoke river were an incredible mess by the time we were finished. In fact, as we scurried away in our cars after yet another day of unauthorised filming in a public place, the police arrived, alerted by members of the public that some sort of violent act was taking place by the river. In the final cut Will juxtaposed the violence with nice calm quiet nature shots, inspired by Star Wars: A New Hope - the bit where Luke gets attacked by a Tuskan Raider and, rather than show us the final blow, George Lucas cuts to distant empty valleys and faraway noise.
Dionysus' final appearance: This was one of the first things to be recorded, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because it meant we had one section of the theatrical script that would therefore be set in stone (I'd expected much more adaptation and rewriting through rehearsals than actually took place - basically I underestimated how playable the first draft was). I was never happy with the speech I'd written because we hadn't really decided what the 'message' we wanted to convey was - that gods are wrathful and humanity is doomed? that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? that there is some good to be found amidst all the play's suffering? It's the problem with the whole ancient Greek notion of the deus ex machina - in modern productions it's merely a plot contrivance.
The idea was that, when Dionysus appeared in his godly state at the finale of the play, he would do so on screen, enhanced by all manner of special effects. Poor James had to learn an enormous, long, complicated and unwieldy speech and perform it in a single take. We also shot close-ups of his mouth, his eyes, intending to switch between them rather than just play the entire speech as one shot ... but in the finished show it ended up being the one shot. So James wore a white hooded frock somewhat akin to a Jedi robe, stood in front of the green-screen while smoke was pumped all around him, and tried to get through the whole speech without screwing it up. I think we got one complete take - it was done at the end of a long day and he'd only had time to learn the speech the night before.
A few months later we came back to the sequence, because Will decided he hadn't lit it properly. I had found the time to improve the speech but still wasn't that happy with it. Effects wise Will put shimmering watery effects on the background - in fact this was the one sequence that he delivered a new version of most nights of the season as he continually thought of new ways to improve on it.
Rehearsals and run
This was a glorious time for us. The luxury of all-day, every-day rehearsals - and being paid for them - was one The Bacchanals had never enjoyed before. Unfortunately, like the filming, rehearsals were beset with timetable clashes. Eve stopped work on the pick-ups for The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King so as to finally become available, Julia had university exams to contend with and I finally wrapped up a busy winter/spring of back-to-backing at Circa whilst also teaching at university with only two weeks to go until production week. My final academic assignment for the year was directing the finale of Euripides' Medea with one of the groups in THEA203 at the university's theatre department (with the title role being played by Erin Banks, who would go on to become a Bacchanal in Romeo and Juliet - but more of that in a different commentary!), and the Medea piece became an excellent opportunity to try out many of the plans I had for the stage side of The Bacchae. I had a chorus of twelve who were all identically attired and masked, and I was impressed by how well the masks worked in the Medea piece and learnt a lot in a small space of time about how mask-wearers need to act in order to be seen and heard properly.
Unfortunately the brilliant masks Sar Ruddenklau had made for The Bacchae proved to be totally impractical - when Eve and I had seen the initial designs and the finished masks while Sar was working on them they looked great, but once we got them out at the rehearsal room and on the actors' faces, it was another matter altogether. They looked amazing but obscured the actors' expressions badly (they were built too high up off the faces) and only Julia could really convincingly sell it. We decided to abandon Sar's work and start again from scratch, following the same lines my Medea students had tried of much simpler, smaller masks. They were a huge improvement but, after having already rehearsed much of the play with no masks it seemed an unnecessary imposition and made scenes which had previously been fine not work. My final realisation was that masks are only effective if you have a giant chorus all doing the same thing (as we would with the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream much later - with masks tailor-made to fit each individual actor's face) so, after going through three different sets, we ditched the masks altogether and it was the right decision.
Our two weeks' full-time rehearsal out at Jean's was great fun - the most I have ever enjoyed a rehearsal process. From the outset we were able to run the entire play once a day and have the rest of the day to work on music, choreography, everything. We were all going through traumatic times in our various personal lives through The Bacchae's rehearsal process, so it was as though going out to Island Bay to rehearse was our sanctuary from having to deal with the outside world for seven hours each day. With the six of us being so close and getting on so well, the energy generated in the room each rehearsal was amazing and exhausting at the same time - I have never been so tired as coming home from Bacchae rehearsals. For all our time fears, two weeks' rehearsal was more than ample and most days we would start late or finish early so we could run 'errands' - many of these 'errands' involved detours via cafes so we could have long lunches.
The one major setback from the over-long filming process was that Will ended up with one month instead of three to edit all the sequences together and add the necessary visual and digital effects, so instead of everything being carefully timed in with the visual aspect of the show, we didn't really get to run it with any footage until production week. The production week was incredibly relaxed in terms of where the show itself was at, but quite stressful in terms of waiting for the film components - but no one was as stressed as Will, who is an absolute perfectionist but had an immovable deadline to meet.
On Sunday we painted the back wall of BATS white a la Crave, on Monday we rigged lights and the giant projector. Tuesday - our first run with the film footage - was by far the worst day, with tempers frayed as we tried to get our heads around this huge new component of the show. Also, James had been extremely ill to the point where we drove him home that morning, forced him to get into bed and confiscated his car keys and his cellphone so he could do nothing but rest until Eve returned to pick him up for that evening's run. Furthermore there were some complex lighting issues - the downfall of me multi-tasking is that I was worried too much about the technical elements when I needed to be giving the actors all of my support.
I came in on the Wednesday fuelled with aggressive energy - I hate not being able to crack a show - and we had a brilliant day. Late on Tuesday we'd made the emergency decision that we needed a stage manager (a huge defeat for The Bacchanals as a company of multi-taskers) so Wednesday added many new elements to the show - a stage manager in the form of Julia's friend Rachel, Aidan's CDs of all the backing tracks of music for the show, the arrival of the specially made Jedi cloaks that were a vital part of the costuming, the first view of the 8mm with SOUNDTRACK (amazing!) and, most crucially, the severed head we'd been made. That night's run was the first time Eve played the final scene soaked in blood, and to this day it's the best performance I've seen her give.
On Thursday we did a preview - a full house including three school groups - and it was great to see how the show finally worked in front of an audience. The Bacchae's run was interesting in that it took quite a while to crack just how to convey to the audience that the first few songs were meant to be tongue-in-cheek and that it was okay to laugh. It was also interesting in that we had no time off - from the Thursday preview through to the Saturday of the following week we performed every night. In terms of the performances, it took a while before the actors finally believed me that they were more important than the film footage, and once they accepted this knowledge, the show soared. It also helped that they stopped trying to turn 'Go Toward The Light' into a cheesy emotional number and played the end of the show with the numbness it needed so as not to look earnest.
What was also of great interest in terms of The Bacchanals' box office history was that business was really good - five of the ten shows were sold out and the rest did excellent business. The worst night - Sunday - was 50%. My favourite night was the Tuesday where we started the day with 7 bookings but had 60 in the audience. Word of mouth was excellent for the show and began the weird trend for us of turning lots of people away on the last three nights. We'd already begun work on Romeo and Juliet before The Bacchae opened, and with the show only two months away, it was great to have such a big success with The Bacchae to keep people reminded of who we were for when the next show came around ...
Post-script: Irene's car crashes
It's hard to talk about The Bacchae without mentioning Irene's mishaps behind the wheel, not all of which were her fault. At 5am on the first major day of DV shooting out at Kaitoke (filming all the women being discovered by the Herdsman) Irene, half asleep, wrapped her car around a concrete pillar ten metres from her house. She was fine but the car was not. This meant we were unable to start shooting at 6am and get the sunrise - instead all sorts of strange people-ferrying had to take place. This gave everyone strange attitudes toward being in a car driven by her (especially as she was our designated stunt driver!).
During the second week of rehearsals, I needed to go out to Will's to talk through some of the unfinished DV sequences. James was working at the Lighthouse Cinema in Petone from 6pm-10.30pm, so we travelled out there with him, then Irene and I borrowed his car to drive on out to Will's at Silverstream, reasoning that we'd have enough time to look through all of the footage and then get back to pick James up when his shift finished. However Irene drove up the wrong gravel track out at Will's and reversed a little too hastily. James' beloved car ended up stuck in a ditch and she, Will and I spent three hours trying to get it back onto the road; a task of some difficulty. It wasn't helped by our failure to realise until 9pm that part of the reason the car weighed so much was that James had twenty litres of paint (for the BATS walls) in the boot. I have never laughed so much in my life. -David
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