Tychy@ the Fringe: Bacchae.


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Tychy is put on the Earth during August to review new theatre writing at the Edinburgh Fringe. An adaptation of Euripides‘ “The Bacchae” was therefore hardly a first choice for me. But after the show originally in my sights was cancelled, I went to the Surgeons Hall, resolving to join whatever audience was next going to assemble. Euripides is, needless to say, not a new writer. “The Bacchae” was performed at one of the earliest ever Fringes, over four hundred years before the birth of Christ. It tells the tale of Dionysus, the first rock star and a god of riot, revelries, and wild, wild women. In Euripides’ story, he corrupts Thebes, a city previously of innocent philosophical order.

I have never seen Bacchanalia on stage until now but I imagine that they always have to be unstinting. The songs can never sound watery or like hymns; a brisk hokey cokey will not suffice for the dancing. Instead, the whole theatre must shake to powerful bodies being thrown about with abandon.

Oxford’s Flying Pig Theatre fulfils its side of this implicit bargain. The performers can instantly raise a wall of harmony, ten inches thick. They can create a display of male virility that would make Zeus nod in appreciation and of maidenly exuberance that would send Pan scampering over hill and dale in pursuit. You can probably tell that I am not very qualified to review dance. I don’t know why the performers are wearing only Victorian-style undergarments, or what these weird wooden pyramids are that they have dragged along. Nevertheless “Bacchae” is, to somebody who has just walked in off the street, engrossing to watch. I go away satisfied that I have experienced a proper Bacchanalia.

In the version of “Bacchae” that I saw, Jonny Wiles played Dionysus and Sam Liu the luckless Theban ruler Pentheus. We are promised that if we come along the following night, the actors will have swapped roles, creating “a very different show.” This is asking a bit much during such a busy festival, but I did wonder what proportion of the audience was here for a second time.

Although the Greeks are all Greek to me, I do, as you see, know my way around Shakespeare. It is interesting to encounter what are presumably forerunners to Shakespearean scenarios. Wiles successfully smooths over the small fluctuations that are constantly occurring in his Dionysus, until a charming, captivating lord of the dance has imperceptibly become a spoiled, spiteful tyrant. Yet there are villainous soliloquies in his mouth from the very beginning. If a Grecian, Iago would be quite happily boogieing away at the back of one of Dionysus’ revels.

When Agave (Rosa Garland) tears her own son from limb to limb, gulled into thinking him a mountain lion, we are not very far from the pie in Titus Andronicus. Except that the “whereof their mother daintily hath fed” scene is basically a prank, whilst the sustained delay as we wait for Agave to realise that she is showing off the head of her own son is horrible. Helped by some uncanny direction, Liu somehow manages to convincingly play a severed head with his entire body. I am not sure, however, whether Agave’s story is just trying to stun us into accepting it. In this production, the drama is imposed through the sudden absence of music, along with shuddery details such as Agave’s horror at seeing her son’s blood under her fingernails. But we are never introduced to Agave, or witness her and her son together, until he is killed. The consequent tragedy is like coming across a traffic accident in the street. We are shocked by the vision of distress but we cannot be expected to know the emotional reality inside-out.

This is, of course, Euripides’ fault. Maybe this is how I should review him – by pretending to myself that he is a new student writer, with a problematic, over-ambitious drama on his hands. Patronisingly, I shall offer him advice and next we will have a bad-tempered spat on Twitter, in which he whines that I “haven’t understood” his play.