“I’ve looked into the eyes of divinity and it blinded me”
Lazarus Theatre Company return to Camberwell’s Blue Elephant Theatre after their 2014 Richard III with this striking new devised version of The Bacchae. Adapted by Gavin Harrington-Odedra after Euripides and then opened up to collaboration with the ensemble in the rehearsal room, the result is an enigmatic and seductive take on this Greek tragedy to end all tragedies.
Compared to the Almeida’s Ben Whishaw/Bertie Carvel-led production with its amazing polyphonic Chorus, the focus on the ensemble here feels like a wise move. From its opening moments of haunting singing and percussive noise through the haze-filled auditorium, it is clear that something powerful has taken over in Thebes and that it contains that kind of elemental force that can’t easily be tamed.
It is instigated by the arrival in the mortal realm of the god Dionysus, his nose thoroughly out of joint due to a slander on his divine status and so he compels the female Theban populace to down sticks and join in a Bacchanalian frenzy (oh look, that’s where the word comes from!) to spite the king Pentheus. But Harrington-Odedra, also directing, is just as interested in the stories of those people as he is in the god and the king.
And so through the feverish swirling of some nifty physical theatre, notions of personal freedom are interrogated and snatches of the lives that have been left behind shine through – the roast beef no longer cooked, the children no longer alive, the husband’s sensitivities no longer necessary to tread carefully around. And there’s an interesting suggestion of the way mass hysteria propagates, RJ Seeley’s dulcet tones as Chorus Leader enticing people in to simply tell a story but then never letting them leave.
It’s a fascinating approach to the source material and one which largely works well, especially when the whole company is in motion and Stuart Glover’s bold lighting design is in full flow, none more so than in a horrifying death scene that is truly chilling. With a company of 14 and a running time of just an hour, the scope is thus necessarily a little limited but it’s a dramatically valid and viable angle on the material that isn’t overplayed.
The only real consequence is that Dionysus’ role becomes increasingly less central, which is a shame when a beguiling Nick Biadon revels so much in the petulance and delighted arrogance in causing such civil unrest. I’d’ve liked to have seen more of him, especially as he’s countered well by Stephen Emery’s outraged monarch Pentheus, whose forcible journey into sexual liberation is disturbingly effectively done. Still, Lazarus and the Blue Elephant present us with an exuberant and fresh take on The Bacchae that isn’t afraid to take risks with a piece of strikingly stylised theatre.