The Bacchae, adapted and directed by St. Andrews’ own Gabriele Uboldi, made an energetic return to the stage, this time as an innovative and politically relevant tile in the zany mosaic that is the Edinburgh Fringe.
The immersive experience began straight away as audience members, cued up and tickets in hand, overheard an argument between two cast members as they made their way inside, pulling at and adjusting their flower crowns and togas. Bickering and disagreements continue throughout the show as the two leading actors, Phoebe Angeni and Toby Poole, who portray Dionysus and King Pentheus within the play’s original text, free from the authority of their absent director, attempt to satisfy their own opposing agendas. Angeni – or the fictionalized version of Angeni presented within the play – wishes to modernize the myth, engaging with contemporary politics and incorporating sensuous dancing, which was expertly choreographed by Charmaine Hiller and set to some seriously killer music. Poole takes a more tradition position, wanting the performance to stay true to the original ancient Greek rendition. The tension between the two actors underlies the dramatic arc of the original myth, expertly navigating between performative and meta-performative levels.
The chorus effectively used sounds and physicality to emphasize plot points. Some moments that stick out in my mind include their intentionally awkward and lackluster performance of traditional choral lines, their tension-building hissing as they encircled Cadmus the Messenger (Donovan Kelly) before they tore apart Pentheus in a feverish height of bacchius revelry.
Physicality was effective in expressing the oppositional relationship between Dionysus and King Pentheus. Angeni would often drape herself over Poole’s tensed shoulders, communicating their ideological opposition through their bodies as well as their words. However, while the piece made effective use of physicality, treatment of space could have been further developed, particularly in the distinction between the moments occurring ‘backstage’ and those occurring onstage.
I also took issue with certain political moments in this piece. Dionysus’ opening monologue explicitly mentioned Trump and Brexit which, especially in the context of the Fringe, where every other show makes some kind of throwaway reference to these topics in attempts to be relevant, felt tired and predictable. However, the political message ultimately distilled into something refreshing and timelessly expressed through ancient myth. The Bacchae shows logical and moral high grounds as our downfall, arguing that a society must engage with and understand all aspects of itself to achieve reason and balance. This message could have stood alone; leaving the audience to draw their own connections to contemporary politics would have achieved greater political resonance.
Those small notes aside, those who contributed to The Bacchae should be very proud of the engaging and relevant piece they staged at The Fringe. It maintained a difficult meta-theatrical conversation with clarity and ease, struck a lovely comedic balance and made great use of physicality and storytelling.