Friday, 11 September 2015

Theatre Review: Bakkhai

This may come as a surprise to you but I am not a cool person.

I know how shocking this revelation is so I’ll give you a moment to recover.

Ok? Good. 

Not being a cool person makes me very suspicious of places like Islington, where I believe that at least one type of cool person tribe lives. Consequently I’d never been to The Almeida theatre before this week.

The Almeida is definitely a cool person’s theatre. Teeny tiny and with the apparently currently cool aversion to armrests (seriously, I'm getting so sick of the War on Armrests that some London theatres seem to be intent on waging. What did the poor armrest ever do to us except make sitting down more comfortable?), The Almeida is currently home to a season of ancient Greek plays, the latest of which is Bakkhai.

Image source.

For reasons, well a reason, that shall become apparent I desperately wanted to love Bakkhai. But I just couldn't. Not all of it, anyway.

You see, there’s a really good piece of theatre trapped within this production that just isn't given the chance to escape. And the thing trapping it is the interminable sung Chorus, done in traditional ancient Greek style as a group who speak and sing all of their lines in unison. 

Whilst technically impressive - and there should be no question that getting a reasonably sized group of diverse voiced women to sing in complete unison without a conductor is impressive - there’s just too much Chorus in what is a very short play by modern standards. Like, way too much Chorus. I would say at least 70% too much Chorus. The songs they sing are instantly forgettable (there was one about nets I think? Possibly I'm making that up but I'm running with it for the rest of this post), excessively long and frustratingly impenetrable - a particular shame given how clear this updated version of the classic text is otherwise. There are also far too many songs. They become boring very quickly, to the extent that I realised reasonably early on that I would happily give up Dionysus’ best invention (wine; lovely, lovely wine) forever if it meant that the Chorus would shut the fuck up. The man sitting next to me fell asleep whilst they were singing. Twice. Seems I wasn't the only one who wasn't a fan.

It’s a real shame that the Chorus kill this show so quickly and entirely because there is something quite special going on at the heart of it, and it’s called Bertie Carvel. 

Now look, I fucking LOVE Bertie Carvel, the latest recipient of my obsessive affections (see also: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Ball, Dominic West), and so I recognise that I’m biased. But, man, he is extraordinary in Bakkhai. I use the word extraordinary in both senses: 1) very, very good and 2) very, very weird. Doing double duty as shrewd politician Pentheus (both in and out of drag, and my personal thanks to the costume person who bought the slightly too tight shirt that Pentheus wears initially because WOW) and his unhinged, Dionysus-following mother Agave, he is quietly electrifying whenever he is on stage. His performance is a masterclass in understatement. His Pentheus is so still and controlled, at least at first, that he is instantly much more frightening than anything more bombastic would be. Even the drag sequence (where once again I come face to face with a man who walks in heels better than me) is played quietly and with some incredibly well attuned interaction with the audience. His Agave is heart rending, and again so subtly - and unexpectedly - played. There must be a serious temptation to play Agave, who *spoiler alert* has just brutally murdered Pentheus in a fit of Dionysian madness, as a raging screaming madwoman but this temptation is neatly side stepped in favour of a quiet but consuming grief and despair which is surprisingly beautiful. Almost as beautiful infact as Bertie Carvel’s shoulders which are displayed to great effect in Agave’s silk slip. But that’s by the by. This is great performance (performances?) that is definitely worth the ticket price and, more importantly, sitting through many lengthy songs about nets. And frankly I think any actor who is prepared to go on stage every night and murder himself deserves our support. Imagine the existential crises this must induce. 

For my money Bertie Carvel’s performance is far more interesting than top billed star Ben Whishaw’s, who plays more parts but with less variation. His Dionysus is great, with a creepy sensuality that’s a great foil for straight laced Pentheus and that dissolves to reveal a frightening fury in the final scenes, but his other parts (he also has old seer Tiresias and Pentheus’ slave who reports his death, Basil Exposition in Austin Powers style) are more forgettable. To put it another way, I was still thinking about Pentheus/Agave two days after seeing the show (and not just because of Bertie Carvel’s shoulders and too tight shirt) whereas I don’t think I've given Dionysus a second thought.

I suppose my overall feeling on this production of Bakkhai is that there’s a great play, fantastically acted, trapped within a mediocre musical. If you want a musical about Dionysus, check out Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs which is all kinds of awesome. It you want to see some top class acting (and shoulders) and don’t mind sitting through some songs about nets, then this Bakkhai is for you. But you’ll have to move quickly as it's almost sold out and finishes next week. Sorry about that.

Bakkhai is on at The Almeida until 19th September.

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