Euripides’ classic tale of the irrational versus the rational is brought kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by writer-director Gabriele Uboldi in this new production of The Bacchae. Although the message is laid on a bit thick at times, Uboldi has certainly created a thought-provoking and visually-stunning piece of theatre in his labour of love.
For those of us not familiar with Euripides’ classic tale (and who needed to Google the spelling of Euripides), the story is centred around the Greek God of decadence and wine, Dionysus (Molly Williams), who comes down from Olympus to lead his supporters, the Maenads, in an orgiastic Bacchic celebration of pleasure. In the process, they thoroughly annoy and ultimately cause the death of highly rational King Pentheus, played by Edd Smith (spoiler alerts are unnecessary in stories over 2400 years old). Uboldi’s meta-script involves the actors themselves – “Edd” and “Molly” – coming out of character to fight over the presentation of the piece of theatre itself; a cackling “Molly” wants to modernise the piece with sexy dancing and cross-dressing, while “Edd” wants to stick to the Ancient Greek text.
If you can overcome the pretentions of the concept, it provides a clever and engaging twist on a classic tale. However, once this message has been received and the joke of the actors has been laughed at – which happens in the first few lines of dialogue – it all becomes a little predictable and plodding. Williams and Smith’s repetitive stage whispers about the nature of theatre become a little wearing, though the actors’ fascinating interpretations of the roles do somewhat rescue this, especially Williams. She is out of control and a little uncomfortable to watch, and as the play progresses the lines between character and actor become deliciously blurred. The choice to cast a woman as leading a cult of highly-sexed women is good and plays into the character’s motivation. Smith’s stalwart Northern accent and comedic reluctance to wear women’s clothing is also well-played. While Olli Gilford and Caitlin Morris are solid supporting characters and provide great comedy, the purpose of their roles is a little hard to define. They seem less comfortable playing themselves than Williams and Smith, perhaps due to a lack of clear direction.
Despite the performances of the leads, the best moments were the scenes featuring the chorus. The group of women who portrayed the Maenads were stunningly-talented dancers, with professional-level choreography by Charmaine Hiller leaving audiences amazed. The final scene of bloody murder was fantastically blocked, and Phoebe Angeni is worthy of a special mention as the powerful Agave. The music was well-chosen, and producer Libby Cavaye’s tech throughout was flawless. Attention to detail of the set, costumes and staging was beautiful, with flowers intertwined amongst the audience’s seats and performers coming amongst the audience more than once. Stage manager Madison Hauser did sterling work, not least in a cameo which brought realism to the central conceit of the show.
Overall, The Bacchae was a fun and sensational night of theatre, and its highbrow background, while a little too self-referential, is exactly the sort of thing that I expect of university theatre – and I cannot fault it for that.
STARS: * * *