“Cleverness is not wisdom,” warn the Maenad chorus, as king Pentheus determinedly resists the rise of new god Dionysos’ cult in Thebes. Euripides’ Bacchae tells how the young god returns to his mother Semele’s home city to visit her grave, only to wreak terrible vengeance on Thebes’ young and arrogant king Pentheus, who refuses to respect his godhead. The Greek term for divine power, daimon, becomes a touchstone of Anne Carson’s new version for the Almeida: even the spelling of Carson’s title, Bakkhai, proclaims her intention to stay closer to the original texture of Greek. Euripides’ formal structure remains intact, lyrical choral odes alternating with intense scenes, and while Carson’s clear, crisp language (which retains ancient Greek cries of Euoe! Euoe!) mainly inhabits a timeless poetic world, she touches the contemporary from time to time: “Shall we call a cab?” elderly patriarch Cadmos asks the blind seer Teiresias as they set off in Bacchic regalia to join the revels. “It doesn’t sound very Dionysian,” Teiresias ruefully replies.
Carson’s commitment to authenticity is echoed in the Almeida’s classically-driven production, directed by James Macdonald. Our three leading actors double (and even triple) the principal roles, just as they might have done in ancient Athens, and we have a superb Chorus whose strong, graceful sense of movement and burnished singing tone regularly infuse a sense of the sacred on stage. Composer Orlando Gough mixes tribal, almost Native American sounds with soaringly Medieval harmonies and contemporary dissonance to give each Choral ode a wild, beautiful air. Consonants become percussion: describing how the god “has stung (Cadmos’s daughters) out of their minds”, the Chorus hold a nasalised “ng” until it sounds like a bee trapped in music. Elsewhere, the Chorus yelp, whisper, sigh and scream, or chant speech in unison with mesmerising slowness and clarity. While their choreography isn’t so original, the discipline of their group movement constantly impresses, rapping their thyrsi on the ground with gunshot-sharp timing to add a primal beat. Having changed their contemporary clothes on arrival for soft and ragged fawnskins, the Chorus steadily become more enraptured as the play progresses, rocking and shaking when possessed, smearing their faces with warpaint before Pentheus’ gruesome downfall: Dionysiac frenzy is certainly fun, but it’s also definitely frightening.
Antony McDonald’s design takes our contemporary world (Pentheus in suit and tie, Cadmos in dressing-gown and slippers) into the ancient, played on a flat dark stage surrounded by low hillocks of black soil. The sense of time and place is pleasingly mellow, though Pentheus does get a classic Chanel suit for his fatal Mount Cithaeron adventure. Ben Whishaw plays Dionysos as a whimsically gentle, long-haired cult leader whose many parallels with Jesus are enjoyably obvious: but Whishaw’s menace is very much hidden behind serene confidence, and sometimes this god does need more rage, more viciousness. Bertie Carvel is a nicely uptight, prurient Pentheus, but entirely outshone by his excellent, demented Agave to close. Kevin Harvey’s Cadmos quavers delightfully but lacks the gravitas, the sense of spent fire that would make him finally tragic.