Productions of Greek tragedy all too often turn out, well, tragically. Whether it's a chorus dancing like The Bangles c. 'Walk like an Egyptian' or a translation salvaged from the pile marked 'Victoriana - do not use', the pitfalls are plenty. The National Theatre of Scotland's Bacchae not only overcame these obstacles but triumphed.
With Alan Cumming as Dionysus, the god of theatre, wine and ecstatic release, this was always going to be special; no man can do louche cabaret-act, glamorous rockstar and psychopath at the same time so well. Happily, Cumming brings all these aspects to bear in Dionysus, who returns to his birthplace, Thebes, to avenge the slights on his divinity made by his relatives (especially prince Pentheus).
The women of Thebes, who first rejected Dionysus, have been driven mad by him and sent out to the mountains to dance and drink Dionysiacally. The celebrants include Pentheus' mother and aunts, chief despisers of Dionysus' mother, their sister Semele, who was killed when Zeus revealed himself to her. Pentheus, as a tight-buttoned infant autocrat, refuses to countenance either Dionysus' existence or the women's orgiastic rites. The returning god does not take this kindly, and Euripides' gruesome climax is well-known.
Even beyond the magnetic Cumming, whose initial buttock-bearing upside-down descent onto the stage indicates that everything will be turned about, this production is utterly transfixing and brilliantly thoughtful in its interpretation of what the play and the genre as a whole mean to modern theatre.
Tragic choruses are invariably hard to pull off. No-one now buys the idea of a group of spectators marooned on the stage, there for communication but not action, commentating in a more general sense of the play's themes. Do you have them dance Greekly for their odes? Are they standing about the rest of the time?
What director John Tiffany has done is go the whole hog: if we're having a chorus, we're having an all-dancing, all-cartwheeling team of soul singers in Valentino-esque scarlet ballgowns. They are given lively music in a vareity of genres, and their opening ode is a Jesus Christ Superstar-like rock anthem, led by their own personal Jesus. To a woman they have stunning voices.
This is immensely successful in the context of the play. Since The Bacchae is about divine possession, being taken out of yourself, nothing is more suitable than the old musical standby of unselfconscious singing and dancing. Not only are the Bacchants possessed by their own music but the audience is too; you stare at them, completely involved in the sound and movement, before being shaken out of your trance when the ode ends. This, to me, is the most perfect representation and creation of the Bacchic spirit one can get in a theatre without absinthe and hookers.
At the other end of the dramatic scale, the straight scenes between Dionysus & Pentheus and Cadmus & Agaue (Pentheus' grandfather and mother) are very well-acted. Tony Curran, as the overly-restrained prince, gives suitably subtle indications of homosexuality to suggest that when Dionysus flips his mind, he is really only uncovering his true self. This adds more layers to Pentheus' assumption of women's clothes, ostensibly to go spy on the Bacchants. The latter pair's final, grief-stricken scenes create so much emotion that you forget that Paola Dionisotti (aptly, as Agaue) has only for the first time come on stage.
Unsuccessful perhaps is the somewhat muddled theological identification of the play. Having Dionysus sing with and be worshipped by the Chorus implies they are aware of his divinity, whereas the text suggests that they are not; otherwise, how can we explain their worry on his behalf? No-one fears for a god's safety.
But this is a small subtraction from what is otherwise a masterpiece of the staging of Greek tragedy: it manages to make all the conventions of Classical theatre comprehensible to modern audiences while completely getting the central issue of the play, all wrapped in a dynamic and intelligent production. The Bacchae's lesson may be that we should not get too carried away (or indeed not carried away enough), but it was hard not be by this show.
For an interview with Alan Cumming and Tony Curran, see this video: