This is not only my second The Bacchae and my second Dionysus in two days, but it is also the second to take a bold comedic step outside of Euripides’ tragedy and into the turmoil of a failing modern production. Both Mikra Theatricals’ “The Bacchanals,” which I had caught yesterday at the Surgeons Hall, and today’s “The Bacchae,” which the University of St Andrews’ Mermaids are currently performing at the Infirmary Street Greenside, pits an insurgent all-female chorus against a pompous patriarchal director. In the former play, the director thinks himself Dionysus but he is eventually recast as Pentheus; in the latter, the patriarch is Pentheus outright.
Mikra Theatricals get the top score, though the Mermaids win a couple of bonus points for ambition. Whereas “The Bacchanals” is a witty farce that is set entirely backstage, in the chorus’s dressing-room, the play within the “The Bacchae” is dumped, excruciatingly unprepared, in front of us, the audience-within-the-play. With this device, the Mermaids are condemned, in the end, to perform The Bacchae mostly straight. The bickering between the directors and the directed is hissed sotto voce in between the normal lines. We thus experience Euripides’ original tragedy along with another, more comic play as a kind of marginalia.
This is an innovative and promising premise for a farce, but unfortunately the metatheatre comes across as a brief foreplay rather than as anything more exciting. Indeed, the silliness is faint-hearted and rather scrappy. Toby Poole is very watchable as an aggressively thespian Pentheus, who slouches squarely about with his jaw thrust out. He meets his match in Phoebe Soulon’s femme fatale Dionysus, who is prone to erupt alarmingly into insane cackling like the Joker from Batman. Pentheus’ death is the most skilful and spectacular aspect of this play and certainly worth waiting for. Yet the production only relies upon these two performers for its power and numerous farcical opportunities that are innate to staging a play-within-a-play are never chased up.
The reason for this is possibly that there is never much of a dispute between the rival theatre-makers to begin with. Phoebe claims to want to turn The Bacchae into “relevant” contemporary theatre, perhaps a play in which Pentheus, a representative of the establishment, is torn to shreds by maddened Brexiteers. Toby, on the other hand, wants the story to be told classically, “in togas,” with no politics, and with a man as Dionysus. After not too long, however, both characters have been sucked into the story. Dionysus’s would-be agitprop has harmonised imperceptibly with the traditional tragedy, whilst Pentheus’ stuffiness has melted away within the pulsating Dionysiac rhythms.
Euripides is the winner of this contest. His tragedy fulsomely contains both directors and they can never clamber out of it. Phoebe can hardly be arrested and charged with orchestrating Toby’s murder – the play has eaten her and all of the evidence.