For the last couple of years I have been making – or trying to make, anyway – a concerted effort to learn about Alexander’s life via the four principle sources (plus Justin) of his life.
Although I still have much to learn I think I am now sufficiently comfortable to now start thinking about expanding my focus a little: forwards, past the Wars of the Successors, which are already part of my reading, to the Successor kingdoms, and backwards, to classical Greece.
To that end, I went this week to see the Almeida Theatre’s production of Euripdes’ Bakkhai.
Euripides wrote Bakkhai – or The Bacchae as it is more commonly called – while living in the court of Archelaus I of Macedon, giving the play a nice point of connexion with Alexander.
In it, King Pentheus of Thebes tries to eliminate the worship of Dionysius in his city only for the god to take a fatal revenge on him. As if the tragedy of Pentheus’ pride is not enough for us, he is (literally) torn to shreds by his own mother, whom Dionysius has maddened along with the women of Thebes and taken into the mountains.
There is no doubt that Pentheus acts foolishly in setting himself against Dionysius; whether he deserves to be killed – and in such a gruesome way – is quite another matter, but the gods of Olympius are not known for staying their hands or acting in a half-hearted matter.
I first read Bakkhai a few years ago. My chief memory of it is that I found the play to be quite a disturbing and uncomfortable one. Too many mad people running around for my taste? Probably – that gave it an air of being a horror show, and I definitely not keen on horror as a literary genre, whether in books or, for example, film. I entered the Almeida, therefore, in trepidation. Would I enjoy it? Would I wake up in the middle of the night afterwards in a cold sweat? The answer to these questions is yes and no. Here is why I enjoyed the production.
This production used a translation of the play by Anne Carson. Perhaps rather cheekily, she has added some lines to Euripides’ text so that the modern world gets a mention. I’m not sure that was wholly necessary but it did not detract from the play and was a nice addition to its humorous aspect.
The Almeida is a very small theatre. I sat in the front row and could easily touch the stage with my foot. Okay, I am quite tall so have long legs but believe me when I say you sit very close to the action. And this intensifies it, immeasurably – as if it wasn’t intense enough already. Watching this play was like being in the very middle of an unfolding disaster.
The lead role of Dionysius was played by Ben Wishaw. With his slight frame and puppy-dog face he might seem a surprise choice to play the wild and malevolent god but Wishaw made the part his own. He did this in a number of ways: a. by the different ways he used his voice. Proud and firm, dreadful and strong for Dionysius, cockney for a Theban survivor of the god’s revenge b. by the way he acted with his body as well as his voice. For example, when he spoke of religion, Wishaw punched the palm of his hand. That’s the Greek gods to a T. c. Allied to b., by the way he used his face. Wishaw may have a ‘puppy dog’ expression but my goodness, when he narrows his eyes he is as fierce as fire. By-the-bye I am convinced that if he did weight training he would make an excellent Hephaestion to Jesse Eisenberg’s Alexander. At first sight, both men are much too small for such a role but as actors they have an inner fire that I am sure could see them do a better job than Colin Farrell and Jared Leto.
Pentheus was played by Bertie Carvel. Pentheus can’t be an easy part to play as he is rather a straight man to Dionysius’ mad character but Carvel was excellent. Straight back, smug face, full of self-assurance – that’s the Theban king through and through.
The third of the three principle actors was Kevin Harvey who played Pentheus’ grandfather, and first king of Thebes, Kadmos. I really liked his interpretation of the aged king. What really made it for me was just one detail: the way Harvey almost let his tongue hang out of the old man’s mouth. That was a little touch but spoke perfectly to Kadmos’ old and sadly decrepid state.
I can’t move on without mentioning the Chorus. The women who formed it were really, really good both in their singing and associated movements. And the way they whacked their thyrsi on the stage. At that point I really would have preferred to have been sitting a few rows back! It was very fearsome.
I have to admit, during the play I did think to myself – Alexander would have seen this, what did he make of Bakkhai? For me this is a question worth considering as Alexander believed in the Dionysius’ reality. With that in mind, I find it very hard to believe that he would have viewed the play as no more than entertainment. Seeing the god so fearsomely portrayed surely would have made an impression on him. Perhaps we owe to such as Euripides’ play Alexander’s strong religious devotion, which he maintained all through his life.
Being able to visit the theatre is a great privilege. Living so close to one, as I do to the Almeida, makes me doubly lucky. Bakkhai was not only enjoyable on the night, but has giving me new things to think about thereafter; I hope, as well, that it will remind me to go back to the theatre sooner rather than later. With Medea opening at the Almeida later this month, that might just be possible.