The second half of this New Theatre season began with an explosion of atmospheric horror. The tone was set by the music that played to the audience who waited patiently in the foyer and we entered the smoke filled auditorium with a sense of hushed expectation that is rarely seen. The sense of anticipation was tangible in the heavy air.

‘The Bacchae’ is a play that is very hard to perform, very hard to stage and very hard to make engaging for a modern audience. This task was bravely taken on by Lewis Baxter, cast and crew. They have managed to create an ethereal world in which it is impossible not to feel uncomfortable, even a little nervous. The hanging body parts and jagged leaves that adorn the set are disconcerting: entirely appropriate for a play that is so alien in humor and subject.

However, and this is a huge however, how should I judge a play in which I could neither see nor for the most part hear the actors? The lighting was abysmal, the projection over the haunting flute melodies worse. This distracting music was perhaps the best part of a production in which the only reaction form the audience was to either laugh or sigh. The disembodied voices floating out to us underneath the smoke had a hard time convincing us of any characterization whatsoever.

The play depicts the lives of the nobles of Thebes who have dishonoured the god Dionysus (Hassan Govia). He brutally takes his revenge by driving all of the females of the city into a frenzy and coaxing Pentheus (Tom Burke) the king into a trap whereby he is killed by his own mother in an ecstatic mishap. This storyline was delivered with care and consideration for the text. It was slightly confusing though: I wikipedia’d afterwards to make sure I had the right plot. There were some clever touches, such as having the action, which is only reported via messengers in the script, appear in silhouette at the back of the stage. The lighting was clearly crafted with diligence and achieved the undercurrent of rapacious fury that the chorus scenes required. However these moments were islands floating in a sea of dross.

Here is a play in which I could see so much promise. The chorus scenes were cleverly choreographed, and times the audience was struck from uncomfortable silence into genuine horror. The scene where Agauë returns to Thebes bearing the mistaken head of her own son is truly harrowing and is definitely the highlight of the performance. Both Tiresias and Cadmus deliver more than adequate old men. Govia, if not always accurate, is always engaging.

It is not a play that is mundane, but it is a play with which it is hard to connect. The length of the monologues and the difficulty of speaking in verse make it an arduous task to build the relationships on stage, an even harder task to form one with the audience. I’m afraid this production has done itself no favours. In short it felt unforgivably underprepared. I can understand the actors nerves, the inability to see what they were doing must have been tough, but to present an already slow play with so little energy, and with so many obviously missed ques and lines, made it a spectacle that was very difficult to sit through. I also wish that Baxter had relied on the prowess of his actors to convey their own voices rather than using what can only be described as an awful voiceover.

However these are problems that I am sure have been acknowledged. I am sure that they will be fixed. This is a play with a towering ambition. It has not achieved this ambition on the first night, but will, I’ve no doubt, pick itself up for later performances. It has so much about it that was good that was simply overshadowed tonight, literally. It is a play that is hugely atmospheric, but on its first night, almost unwatchable.

Mav Reynolds

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5 Comments

  1. Tom
    November 21, 2009 at 18:36 — Reply

    This review is too forgiving. The audience were not entertained.

  2. Char
    November 22, 2009 at 19:41 — Reply

    Oh so you speak for the whole audience do you?

  3. Shmav Shmenolyds
    November 24, 2009 at 17:34 — Reply

    I very much enjoyed the Bacchae. It’s hard to do Greek tragedy and they pulled it off brilliantly. Mav’s writing, however, is poor.

  4. evelyn perry
    November 28, 2009 at 18:54 — Reply

    The work is one of great subtlety i felt rather neglected by woeful attention to the audience. The aesthetic of the play was excellent but the projection was atrocious, i struggled to hear from the third row. Perhaps the biggest critique of the work I have is that Baxter has abandoned his actors, adrift in a sea of impressive tech and complex motifs, their humanity (with the exeption of Agaue) was completely lost, becalmed by a rising tide of incongruous noises and dim lights. A good chance wasted.

  5. Char
    November 29, 2009 at 15:45 — Reply

    The whole point is that the Bacchae have lost their humanity. That’s why they pull Pentheus’ head off; they are possessed and have abandoned their human traits.

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