Dramas never change – only the cast. Take illegal donations, now starring Brown, not Blair. Or take (more artistically) Euripides’ great tragedy, the Bacchae, which has just received the break-dancing treatment courtesy of Renegade Theatre, mere months after Alan Cumming brought his seductive, demonic Dionysus to town.
The play tells of the god Dionysus’ return to Thebes to punish his relatives who deny his divinity. He brings with him his Bacchants, women engaged in his orgiastic rites where decency and clothes are cast off in favour of wine and religious ecstasy. Dionysus ultimately sets his Bacchants onto his cousin and chief mocker Pentheus, king of Thebes, who is torn apart by – among others – his maddened mother.
The Renegade production, on last weekend in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, removed the words but added acrobatic, vital forms of dancing and movement, which neatly represented the Bacchic possession but also sketched the story. The Cumming production, at the Lyric Hammersmith, induced maenadic fervour in the audience with its power-chorus of rock and gospel songs, transporting us out of the theatre, surely as Euripides intended.
But it is the subjects of the play which make it eternally relevant and insightful, just as with Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Euripides creates a series of contrasts: between the buttoned-up city with its tyrannical ruler and the open country with its licentious god and orgies, between man, god and beast, between fear and faith. What we see enacted on stage is the tension between living our lives by social norms, which restrict us and forbid us from indulging in pleasures we might enjoy, and giving into our true nature, which can prove unconquerable and inhumane.
These themes speak to our lives today, as they have for centuries. People have always tried to move beyond what society decrees, whether positively in opposing apartheid in South Africa or negatively in trying to marry farm animals. (It’s not a life choice, it’s just odd.) Euripides shows the sort of insight into the human psyche that would remain buried until Freud enticed people onto his couch: we are in a constant battle between our transgressive desires and what we think we ought to do.
Euripides has another revival on at the moment, with Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy. While I am really looking forward to that, it is very specifically of this moment, dealing with the fall-out of war; the Bacchae, with its questions of unchanging human nature, stands outside time.