Come revel in an hour of madness and pagan ritual. In this production of Euripides’ ancient play, Flying Pig Theatre gives Dionysus shape among eerie sound effects and primal dancing. While certain stylistic elements detracted from the show, the superb acting from every cast member ensured it to be a solid performance.
For those unfamiliar with The Bacchae, or The Bacchantes, it centres around the city of Thebes, where Dionysus is wreaking havoc on the citizens who doubt his godliness and refuse to follow him. In an effort to incite revenge on the royal family of Thebes, who have defied Dionysus, he drives the women mad, making them join his Maenad followers. His rivalry with Pentheus the king, and the latter’s downfall, makes up the majority of the play, leading to a tragic ending for Pentheus and his family.
Flying Pig Theatre take the animalistic madness associated with bacchanalia to heart in all of their artistic choices, with mixed results. The subtle noise effects that haunt the background of the spoken scenes—such as haunting whistling echoing throughout the room, plastic crinkled over a microphone, and arrhythmic drumbeats—add captivating ambience that turn the plain thrust stage into an arid and mythical landscape. The fact that all these effects are created in plain view, rather than offstage or by a recording, draws attention to the contrivances of theatre, also contributing to the mythical unreality of the play. This unnerving atmosphere lends itself greatly to the madness lurking in the plot and the god who directs it.
However, the musical interludes are on the whole less successful. While heavy drumbeats and choreographed writhing on the ground are perhaps what is expected when it comes to chaotic revelry, it would have been more interesting to see moments of human joy amidst the animal madness. After all, as the text keeps reminding us, the followers of Bacchus are meant to be in ecstasy, living for pleasure and in a state of bliss. Instead of seeing this, we see only a lot of twisted anger. This could be viewed as commentary on whether people living purely for physical pleasure can be anything other than animals. Even so, these interludes happened much too often without noticeable changes in music or choreography to distinguish them from one another. The dancing itself was executed skillfully, but after a while dragged in its repetition.
The singing that went with the dances, usually one cast member belting from the chest to intentionally discordant choruses from the other members, was similarly flawed. While the chant-like songs were clearly meant to conjure up images of ancient peoples undergoing ancient rituals, the singers’ voices could not endure the force they were put to, at least over a Fringe length of performances. There were no painful or obvious mistakes, but underneath each belted note was the faintest beginning of the voice beginning to crack or lose pitch. The effect was numerous songs that didn’t further the plot, reveal information, or even musically entertain. The major function of the song and dance was to serve as understandable breaking points from the heavy dialogue. For the most part, the impression given from the musical sections was that the creative team were working from tropes of what old pagan rituals are meant to look like, without bringing anything original to the table themselves.
However, many of the actor’s spoken performances were strong enough to make the musical sections forgettable in what was otherwise an impressive show. Johnny Wiles as Dionysus was charming and able to put himself above his company to demarcate himself as a god without belittling the other actors’ performances. While Pentheus, played by Sam Liu, is often made to look silly, petty, and human beside him, he is equally intriguing, and plays commanding and self-assured as well as he plays meek under Dionysus’ command. Pentheus’ mother Agave (Rosa Garland) is captivating as she wanders entranced and enraged throughout the play. Each of the lead characters leaves the audience somehow wanting more, as if their personalities and stories have many deeper levels than we can see.
Flying Pig Theatre Company’s production is engrossing and moving, and even with the forgettable musical sections is a play to be remembered. Bacchae transports viewers to a foreign and supernatural world with epic stakes and tragic downfalls that leaves audiences feeling the power of this classical play.
theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall (Venue 53)
Until 26th August (not 20th)