In November 2000, when I was fifteen years old, my parents took me to see my first Greek tragedy. It was Bacchae, performed in the QEH theatre in Bristol by the touring company the Actors of Dionysus. I was utterly captivated: by the story; by the simplicity; by Tamsin Shasha’s sexy, dangerous Dionysus; and by the translation. Ever since I’ve been hunting down a translation which begins with that same commanding cry: ‘Thebes! Thebes! First city of Greece! I have come back…‘ So when I heard that, sixteen years later, the company were performing Bacchae again, in an open-air production in the grounds of the National Trust’s Osterley Park, I absolutely had to go.
I’ve seen two other productions of Bacchae since my first encounter: UCL Drama’s adaptation at the British Museum, and the Almeida’s version with Ben Whishaw last year, which unfortunately I didn’t write about. But they’ve always been compared against the memory of that first, magical experience with the play. It isn’t often that you have the chance to revisit something which meant so much to you as a teenager (and you shouldn’t always try: such revisitations can be dangerous).
Actors of Dionysus keep their companies small, to give a flavour of what it might have been like for Euripides’ original audiences. There are six actors in the company: three for the main parts, and three for the chorus, dressed as maenads, who also take on the other brief roles: messengers (Lizzie Buckingham), a guard, Agave (Danielle Bond) and the blind seer Tiresias (Janna Fox). These three were wonderful: fleet of foot; mischievous and yet threatening, twining the scenes together with their chants. As Cadmus, Patrick Knox was gentle and compassionate: a man who has lived a long life and come to understand his faults, and tried to better them. In the final scenes, his grief was all the more powerful for being so understated, as a man is quiet when the breath and soul are driven out of him. I should add a note on Danielle Bond’s Agave too: she managed the journey from sprightly divine frenzy to raw, agonised understanding with great finesse. It’s not easy to do and I wasn’t convinced by UCL’s performance of this scene, but Bond carried it off very well.
Pentheus is always a difficult role: he has to be so unyielding in the first part of the play that he can come across as slightly wooden, and I initially found Colin Kiyani a little stiff (deliberately so, I understand now). In his beautifully cut suit, hardly a crease out of place, and with his hair slicked back, this Pentheus is entirely in control: he is so tightly buttoned-up that even his shirt collar is held together with a brooch. In David Stuttard’s translation, it’s evident from an early point that, despite Pentheus’ avowed opposition to the cult of Bacchus on the grounds of public disorder, it’s really the idea of debauchery that gets him excited. This idea was drawn out more strongly here than in the other translations I’ve seen and, I think, more effectively too: it isn’t just Dionysus’ power that proves to be Pentheus’ undoing: it’s his inner fascination with licentiousness. If Yiani verged on stiff in the first half, he was a delight after his transformation by Dionysus: suddenly lively and excitable, bounding around in his (very fetching) dress, eager to run up the mountain and witness the sacred rites.
One of the most memorable aspects of the 2000 Bacchae, as I’ve said, was Dionysus and here Tamsin Shasha reprised the role, scarily looking not a day older than she did then. She has extraordinary acrobatic skills and delivered her lines as the god himself while twisting from a rope in a nearby tree, her movements echoing the gyrations of the maenads. Perhaps it’s just because she was my first Dionysus, but I felt there was a rightness about her performance, not just visually – the golden curls, the Tilda-Swinton-like androgyny – but also dramatically. This Dionysus is slight and lithe, measured, calm and very, very dangerous. It makes an interesting comparison to Ben Whishaw’s slightly more febrile performance last year.
And, having seen that Almeida production, where there was a very clear divide between Dionysus-as-god and Dionysus-in-flesh, I was interested to see how this version tackled it. Although Shasha is dressed in the same in both roles, she’s more languid as the god. Her earthly manifestation is sly and sensual, but in this guise of his own prophet, her Dionysus makes frequent references which differentiate himself from his divine master. It can be confusing to understand the exact difference in this play between god-as-god and god-incarnate, but I think we risk getting into the realms of metaphysics if we pursue that, so we’d better stop.
The company adapts to whatever they finds in their environment and so at Osterley the action unfolded outside a small Neoclassical temple, surrounded by wooded paths and towering trees: a perfect set. Pre-recorded music plays a subtle but important part in setting the scene: a haunting flute-like melody (an aulos?) beforehand and during the interval; drum-beats for the frenzied dancing; and, at the end, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the gorgeous Sacrifice, the theme from The Insider, which of course worked absolutely perfectly for the story and raised all the hairs on the backs of my arms.
It was wonderful to see this again. I’d been afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my memories, but even in the light of sixteen more years of play-going I thoroughly enjoyed it. David Stuttard’s translation flows beautifully, with moments of great pathos and others of brisk humour, and it’s the ideal way in to Greek tragedy for those who’ve yet to dip their toes in. Even better, of course, if you can bring a picnic and enjoy some lovely gardens at the same time! As a touring company, the Actors of Dionysus don’t tend to come into the centre of London and you’ve got a better chance of seeing them in other towns and cities, so keep your eyes open. Whatever they’re performing, it will be done with grace, flair and a profound understanding of the original text.
Images in this post are from a previous stop on this Bacchae tour