Review: Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre

“I am somewhat…supernatural”

What is most fascinating about the way that the Almeida Greeks season is unfolding is that it is as interested in interrogating storytelling as much as stories. As with Aeschylus’ Oresteia and now Euripides’ Bakkhai, we’re being presented with striking new versions of these familiar tales which simultaneously make a case for why they have endured into a third millennium rather than complacently assuming they will just speak to modern audiences regardless.

Robert Icke incisively opened up the domestic and legal ramifications of the House of Atreus in forensic detail. And now Anne Carson, following her version of Antigone for Ivo van Hove, and director James Macdonald position their Bakkhai deep in the recesses of folk memory, a guttural song passed from generation to generation with its cautionary tale of the consequences of leading society to defy convention. It is sure to be divisive but I have to say that I found it endlessly interesting.

Macdonald has adopted an ancient Greek performance style so that three actors share all the roles of the play supported by a fully vocal and integrated Chorus. Thus our expectations are toyed with and challenged – Ben Whishaw’s presence is as company member rather than outright star of the show and the full-bodied presence of the 10-strong Chorus in all their primal musicality and densely poetic fervour amplifies their significance to the telling of this story, their interjections dictating its flow.

Whishaw is indeed powerful as the vengeful god in both his manipulative human form and the god himself, lit superbly by Peter Mumford with his flickering hints of the divine but he’s equally touching as Teiresias or a servant recounting various horrors. For Dionysos is wreaking his revenge on a Thebes that has turned its back on him at the instigation of Pentheus, a wonderfully autocratic Bertie Carvel, who later gives an impassioned performance as his woe-begotten mother Agave, a stunning transformation.

And completely this trifecta is Kevin Harvey, no lesser known third wheel but an equally important part of the puzzle, especially as Pentheus’ grandfather Kadmos, wise but helpless and doomed to a world of anguish. Around them swirl the women of the Chorus, the Bakkhai themselves, delivering choral odes in Orlando Gough’s tangled and complex score in all its fierce and urgent power that very much beats to the sound of its own drum (or Melanie La Barrie’s beatboxing!).

The West End is full of famous faces doing predictable things with predictable dramas so it is pleasing to see other theatres and their companies contrasting that. Bakkhai is at times difficult, angular, strange but it is also playful (the Bakkhai’s continual physical evolution), sexy (Dionysos and Pentheus make sparks fly), heartfelt (Kadmos and Agave ‘s articulation of their pain is exquisite). Recommended. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Booking until 19th September

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