To successfully stage a world-renowned 5th century tragedy is no mean feat, particularly when the performance is entirely in Ancient Greek. Yet Sean Kelly brings the Oxford Playhouse a version of Bacchae laced with moments of real creative brilliance, deftly fusing modern aesthetics with Euripides’ ancient text.
The play centres around the god Dionysos, a deity whose purpose in the pantheon is fairly intangible. Many aspects of Dionysos are tripartite: he is in equal parts god, beast and human; masculine, feminine and androgynous; playful, vengeful and apathetic. Kelly’s production immediately confronts us with this ambiguity by splitting the part into three, with Derek Mitchell, Harry Lukakis and Marcus Knight-Adams together forming the ‘three-headed monster’ of Dionysos. Character is split subtly and thoughtfully, the violent sexuality of Mitchell contrasting nicely with Knight-Adams’ teasing flirtation and Lukakis’ careless superiority. The actors communicate with ease and chemistry, and since all bring unique aspects of the character to the table, they do great justice to the complex role between them.
The jarring composition of Des Oliver compliments the frantic excitement as Mitchell begins to mingle with the chorus, whose contrastingly peaceful song exhibits their enchanted devotion to the god. Sydney Gagliano’s onstage viola playing brings a hint of spontaneity and festival, and the different sounds merge into each other smoothly. As the music fades towards the end of this choral ode, we are suddenly confronted with birdsong, and arrive at the royal palace as if from an all-night Dionysiac orgy.
The costumes of Pentheus and Cadmus, designed by Gwytheth Everson, are strikingly formal and physically restrictive compared to the flowing garments of the Dionysoi. Pentheus’ dark suit in particular aptly conveys his status and conservatism, and Spencer Klavan skillfully presents suggestions of the character’s malleability beneath his veil of authority. Pentheus’ anachronism is confirmed in his later dressing scene. The clothes the gods select for him are mismatched and ill-fitting; they conform to the reds and oranges of the Dionysiac dress, but lack the elegance of Dionysos’ corseted suit. Irony abounds as Knight-Adams channels both the masculine and feminine with ease, while Klavan communicates Pentheus’ total discomfort in both costumes.
The simplicity and versatility of Linden Hogarth’s cuboid staging encouraged imaginative blocking. Boundaries between god and human, free-will and fate, control and anarchy, were all explored on different faces of the revolving centre-piece. Isobel Hambleton’s ambitious movement direction was evident in the ever-changing styles of the chorus, from the bestial to ballet and shadowplay. The use of film within the production, however, seemed somewhat unnecessary, though it was captured artfully. It was impossible to focus on the visuals, the subtitles and Laura Plumley’s delivery simultaneously, and the symbolism (suggested subtly so far) became slightly heavy-handed.
Further mention must go to Bill Freeman, whose grasp of the Greek was extremely impressive, and lent a real authenticity to his messenger speech. Agave’s childlike innocence was beautifully captured by Emilia Clark, who handled the emotional climax of the tragedy with great delicacy. William Bunce and Odysseas Myresiotis-Alivertis, as Cadmus and Tiresias, brought a delightful energy, hinting at the comic undertones of the piece, although any audience laughter at the Greek was unfortunately lost in (lack of) translation.