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.