Theatre review: Bakkhai at the Almeida

Ben Whishaw and cast of Bakkhai. Picture: Marc Brenner

Ben Whishaw and cast of Bakkhai. Picture: Marc Brenner - Credit: Archant

Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel shine in this new adaptation of Euripedes’ final Greek tragedy, but its chorus proves a problem, says Alex Bellotti.

While the Almeida’s Greek season opened in June with a boldly contemporary adaptation of Oresteia, its latest chapter strips both play and theatre back to their most visceral.

Under Antony McDonald’s design, the brickwork of the Almeida’s interior walls forms the sparse backdrop of Bakkhai, echoing the raw emotion of Euripedes’ final Greek tragedy. A dark parable of battling contradictions – ecstasy and terror, masculinity and femininity, civilisation and wildness – James Macdonald’s production feels admirably fat-free, leaving its impressive cast to fare on their wits alone.

At the start of Bakkhai, we are introduced to Dionysus, the god of drama and wine, as he descends upon Thebes to force Greeks to accept his worship. Having sent the city’s women running wild, he has enraged King Pentheus, but as the monarch tries to regain control, his feud with Dionysus comes at his own peril.

This unusually classical piece for the Almeida is counterpointed by the casting of Ben Whishaw as Dionysus – a likely draw for younger audiences. As the eerily-focused, androgynous deity, the Bond actor brings a natural charisma to proceedings, yet it is his co-star who truly runs the gauntlet of emotion.

Well known for his Olivier Award-winning turn as Miss Trunchbull in the Matilda musical, Bertie Carvel shines brightest as Pentheus – at once presenting the villain, the joker and the vulnerable outsider with terrific precision.

While the two protagonists face off, the wild women of Thebes form the chorus, whose beautiful a capella harmonies come at the cost of lyrical clarity. At first earthly and ethereal, their gradual transformation into a savage tribe fuels the play’s elemental energy – throwing the audience into the heart of a raging conflict with religion, the natural world and human nature itself.

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The production’s strength is its timelessness – if it was shown back in 405BC, when the play debuted, it would still hold the same fierce resonance as it does today. With the choral interludes often stalling the narrative between scenes, however, this is an adaptation that – fittingly with its penchant for contrast – blows both hot and cold.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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