The Bacchae photo by William Earl (c) The Bacchanals
Photograph by Willliam Earl

the bacchae
by euripides

The Bacchae centres around Dionysus, god of theatre, wine and cheese, who sends all the Theban women in to Bacchic trances and is known as one of the great Ancient Greek plays. [Playing] until Saturday 15 November, 8pm shows, Bats Theatre
            The Bacchanals company have transformed the play for today's audiences, turning the choruses into musical interludes which, frankly, lost me a bit at first, although the more the actors got in to it, the more I did too. As part of the STAB season at Bats, the show explores multimedia, with the whole prologue projected on to the stark white back wall of the room. The rest of the play has this film element interspersed too. Waiting for the next on-screen piece to come on throughout much of the play; the detail of the film bits won me over more than the simple onstage setting. It wasn't until a meaty part of the play that I really began to take notice of the quality of the actors onstage, but the play ended just as I was getting into it. The small cast each played many parts, and James Stewart's subtle changes as he played two characters at once was a highlight.
            In need of a reason to drag a certain someone away from the World Cup? This play has more blood and gore than you'll ever see at the rugby! You may have studied The Bacchae, your appreciation hindered by masks, boorish choruses or droning actors. Go and see this version if you are one of those poor people, The Bacchanals are excellent at appeasing your memories of dull renditions of this great play.
- Steph Walker, The Package


Dionysus In Wellington Till Saturday
Bacchanals Do It Again

There's a moment in The Bacchanals' new production of Euripedes' The Bacchae when Dionysus (James Stewart) stops fucking around and decides to deal to Pentheus (Alex Greig).
            Grasping his arrogant young mortal relation by the shoulders, he stops the play, and Pentheus, dead in their tracks. It's a pivotal moment plot-wise, and is memorable also for being the only sustained silence of the show. What's been happening up to that point? Well, what hasn't happened?
They say Teiresias once could see photo (c) The Bacchanals             Making good on their press releases, the Bacchanals have already given us more bang for our buck than even the most hopeful punter could have expected: there have been exploding castles, we've seen some CGI, the smoke machines have been working overtime.
            And yet, with all these effects (and the thrill of seeing the back wall of Bats converted into a film-screen) nothing has ever threatened to take the focus from the five actors standing right in front of us. I have seen the show twice, and, despite the heavy use of film (which can't react to an audience) I've seen two different shows. Such is the energy and sensitivity of the cast.
            The story is pretty simple, and knowing the whole thing back-to-front will neither harm nor enhance your enjoyment of this production, which caters, as all Bacchanals shows do, not to the theatre snob, but those in search of a good night out. The fact that the company is helmed by director David Lawrence, notoriously anal about such things as meter and preserving full texts, means that said theatre snobs are not left fuming and crying 'Blasphemy!' either.
            Up till now, perhaps. Lawrence has taken a bold step in subverting the way the Greek plays are supposed to be performed by presenting most reported events on the screen behind the messenger. So we see Pentheus torn to shreds, we see the herdsman come across the bacchantes in the wood, we even see Pentheus dress in drag in the few moments he's offstage. Does it work? Well, yeah.
            To a general audience, the combination will enhance understanding, and even that theatre snob in the back will have to agree that the juxtaposition of Euripedes' words and filmmaker Willy Earl's visuals is a powerful one.
            If someone had told me a few years ago that James Stewart would one day play Dionysus, I wouldn't have believed them, but this young actor is going from strength to strength. Following his impressive work in last year's Crave and this year's The Collective, he brings a real gravity to the godly role, sneering, shouting and silencing, his confidence in the role is apparent from go to whoa. His turn as Agauë's father, the founder of Thebes, is a nice piece of voice and physical work. Alex Greig as Pentheus, too, is impressive, and weaves subtle humour into his ferocious performance.
            The Bacchae themselves couldn't have been better cast. Eve Middleton is great as Agauë, and moves plausibly from hedonistic huntress to broken-hearted mother as the play closes. The desperation with which she tries (in vain) to wash her son's blood from her hands is as frenetic as anything else in the eighty minutes of physical and emotional violence Of these events I can relate no more photo (c) The Bacchanals preceding it. Irene Flanagan and Julia Harrison complete the Bacchanals Mk. 10, and really keep the wheels on the production.
            The set is empty save for a dish of water and the props are few. The new translation is in crisp iambic pentameter and the cast's diction is fautless, probably. The chorus parts are set to music, sometimes playing it straight, sometimes using an up-beat jangle which belies the lyric. My only complaint is that this maybe goes a little Godspell near the end, but well done Walter J. Plinge and Evil M. Übercrave.
            It was one of this project's aims to present an accessible production of a Greek tragedy, but the Bacchanals have gone a step further, and given us 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.
- Jonathan Potts, studentz.co.nz


Playthings of the gods

When the women of Thebes start worshipping Dionysus (variously known as the god of ritual dance and sacred mysticism, of death and new life, of theatre, wine and cheese, of poetry, song and drunken revelry), their king, Pentheus, is not happy. He is especially upset that his mother, Agauë, has become a high-priestess of bacchanalian excess.
            Dionysus, disguised as a mortal, persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman in order to check their mysteries out. But when he's discovered, the crazed women tear him limb-from-limb and poor deluded Agauë brandishes his head believing it to be a lion's until her dad, Cadmus, disabuses her.
            As with all Greek tragedy, we mortals prove to be mere playthings of the gods. We're punished for believing we can interfere in the forces of the universe as they have ordained them. Maybe when Euripides wrote The Bacchae more than 2,400 years ago he was penning a cautionary tale for women who sought pleasures beyond the service of men.
            These days any bloke who has tried to unravel the mysteries of womanhood, let alone infiltrate the feminist movement, may identify with Pentheus. Likewise women who have got so carried away with being women they have alienated themselves from half of humanity may sense a sisterhood with Agauë.
            It may put many in mind of the drug-induced atrocities that occur with alarming frequency, these days, at the hands of people (mostly male) who take P in their quest for a good time. One way or another The Bacchae achieves its right to be called a classic by proving that the more things change the more they stay the same.
            Directed by David Lawrence, this is The Bacchanals' offering for the Bats Stab season. They deliver a powerful ninety minutes, performed by five live actors and many more (led by Taika Cohen, Jocelyn Christian and Hannah Deans) on film and digital video images (DOP, William J Earl).
            A flickery, fuzzy and crackly black and white film prologue is followed by contemporary colour sequences that extract today's women from the Justice, now reveal yourself photo (c) The Bacchanals supermarket, kitchen, corporate meeting and cocktail party, and deliver them to a timeless river-bed for the Dionysian revels.
            Except no-one gets any pleasure from it. There is no libidinous carousing. It is a hedonism-free zone. James Stewart plays Dionysus on a sustained single note of pathological intensity and the women's entrancement is morbidly manic. Is this really how people party these days?
            The only bit of relative levity comes when Pentheus (Alex Greig) baulks at dressing in drag. Irene Flanagan's Teiresias also releases the tension somewhat. But more could be done to give dramatic shape and texture to the play, and value to the strength and commitment everyone (including Julia Harrison) brings to their work.
            Only in the penultimate scene does the pressure ease sufficiently to admit a subtlety that affords real insight. Eve Middleton is riveting as her possessed Agauë comes face-to-face with the enormity of it all. The utter veracity of the severed head (made by Carlos Wedde and Gareth Jenkins) must also be given due credit here.
            More light and shade in pace and tone would go a long way to making this Bacchae more dramatic. That is another immutable truth that remains as timeless as story-telling itself.
- John Smythe, National Business Review

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