Oresteia not only brought Aeschylus into the 21st century cosmetically but also in a radical reworking of the text, James Macdonald brings back some of the original staging conventions of ancient Greece, specifically with regards to casting. All the named roles are played by the same three actors, while the chorus - who aren't quite as authentic in that they're played by real women - speak or sing their lines in unison. The former convention leads to a bit of gender-bending, which is appropriate enough when the play is Euripides' Bakkhai. Dionysus (Ben Whishaw,) best-known as the god of wine and revelry, is a fairly new addition to the pantheon of Olympus, in fact when we meet him much of his mortal mother's family are still alive, and it's they who will bear the brunt of the new god's wrath when they don't show him due respect.
Pentheus (Bertie Carvel) is Dionysus' cousin, and the current ruler of Thebes. The women of his city have gone to the hills to worship the god with a festival of drunken debauchery, a practice Pentheus has condemned, refusing to believe that Dionysus is really Zeus' son.
When Dionysus disguises himself as his own priest, Pentheus makes his hubris worse by throwing him in jail. But the god's powers prove real, and not only can he easily free himself but also take revenge: He humiliates Pentheus by convincing him to dress as a woman so he can infiltrate the Bakkhai; but the laughter at the king's expense will turn nasty as the god has a bloody end in mind for the story, and someone very close to him will deal the fatal blow. Antony McDonald's set is a blasted heath in the middle of hills of black ashes, dominated by a flying saucer-like lighting rig (lighting design by Peter Mumford) that slowly traverses the stage like the sun, suggesting the passing of the day and the approach of a dark ending.
Whishaw plays Dionysus, the blind seer Tiresias and a messenger with a gory tale to tell; as well as Pentheus Carvel also plays his ill-fated mother Agave; and Kevin Harvey plays all the other roles, including Pentheus' grandfather Cadmus. There's strong and varied performances from all of them; Whishaw's Dionysus is an unusual take on the role, less maniacal thrill-seeker, more androgynous waif with the occasional flicker of insanity. Pentheus is a starchy politician, and when he's dragged up there's a headmistressy look to Carvel's costume that feels a bit like a sly nod to Miss Trunchbull. Possibly less deliberate is the fact that he sounds like her when he plays Agave, but I guess even an actor as famously versatile as Bertie Carvel will only have so many convincing female voices in his repertoire.
I had a mixed reaction to the ten-strong Chorus of Bakkhai (Amiera Darwish, Aruhan Galieva, Eugenia Georgieva, Kaisa Hammarlund, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Melanie La Barrie, Elinor Lawless, Catherine May, Belinda Sykes.) Although their harmonic singing, in arrangements by Orlando Gough, is effective, their interludes are a bit too long, especially early on in the play, which left me willing the main action to resume. I did also wish that Macdonald had been a bit less strict with the particular convention that says all the action in Green Tragedy happens offstage: Given how Pentheus meets his end, actually having a group of Bakkhai onstage could have been suffused with a real sense of danger, but here it's clearly some other, unseen group of celebrants who go into a bloodthirsty trance.
And this is where, although generally strong and with an often witty text by Anne Carson, I felt like this Bakkhai was missing something. Although never a dull director, Macdonald always looked like the odd man out in the season with Icke before him and Rupert Goold next, the safe pair of hands sandwiched between a pair of mavericks. In a way the adherence to original practices, when we're so used to modernisation in our Greek tragedies, is a bold and potentially risky strategy in itself. Especially with regard to the chorus, who don't always work, but when they do add to the atmosphere of the show. But while a watchable couple of hours that go by quickly, there's something a bit too controlled to the production - I missed a sense of unpredictability and chaos to reflect the angry, possibly insane god at the story's core.
Bakkhai by Euripides in a version by Anne Carson is booking until the 19th of September at the Almeida Theatre.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.