Midsummer Bacchanalia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd June 2012
As part of their Festival of Chaos, the Royal and Derngate organised a late night Bacchanalia on Saturday 23rd June to coincide with Midsummer’s Eve (almost). Part feast, part party, part performance; “expect the unexpected” was the strapline, so it was a voyage of trust as we went into the unknown.
It turned out to be mainly party; and, in keeping with the R&D’s Dionysian summer, one that got steadily more alcoholic as the night went on. Clustered slightly anxiously outside the Royal Theatre Circle, we were suddenly beset by a noisy and welcoming bunch of characters who greeted us like old friends and encouraged us into a side room – that I now know to be the rehearsal room – decked out in gold wall hangings and giving a pretty good foretaste of the hedonistic self-indulgence to come. Uncertain what would happen, some people sat on chairs, others on the floor; Mrs Chrisparkle and I in our usual unconfident party manner clung to the walls for security. We started off with a dramatic introduction from the theatre’s storyteller Jo Blake Cave. She has a charming style and natural authority; and she used her skills to good effect to stimulate the imagination as she wandered round giving her account of the birth of Dionysus. And with something of a flourish the party began in earnest.
There were five or six main characters – I’m not entirely sure who they all were – but one was the DJ in a gold lame dress, and we thought his music was pretty funky and enjoyable. There was another man dressed all in leaves – not quite sure what that was about; then we had an entertaining couple in the form of a dolphin, who only spoke “deep deep neep neep” type noises – but very eloquently – accompanied by the pirate Acoetes, who every so often sprayed the delighted dolphin with water to keep him moist. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Dionysus turned a bunch of wicked sailors into dolphins, but that Acoetes was always on Dionysus’ side and became a priest to Dionysus as a reward. Whenever the dolphin got things wrong Acoetes would take him back stage for some physical corrective abuse. That’s not part of the legend – that was on Saturday night. It was a funny act. The dolphin also mixed some mean rum cocktails which he was generously passing to all and sundry. Acoetes had more than a passing resemblance to Dr Zee from Flathampton. I bet you never see the two guys in the same room together.
Exhorting everyone to dance was the savagely wounded King Lycurgus of Thrace, which by all accounts is a very dangerous place to go, I couldn’t recommend it. He may have been wounded, but he was well up for a party. His white shirt was soaked in blood and every time he got near her, Mrs C covered up her proudly newly acquired white Levi’s jacket lest it be contaminated from his dripping wounds. Fortunately it survived. There was a very jolly lady whose identity I didn’t quite catch – she might have been Semele, (Dionysus’ mum) – not certain – but she was helping everyone to scoff cherries and cumquats dipped in a chocolate and toffee sauce. I remarked that the offspring of Semele should be called Semolina. Apparently Euripides left that bit out. Then this lady who may or may not be Semele came back with some round white chocolates covered in coconut which she described as her “balls” and which Mrs C and I were required to feed one to each other. They were very nice. When she came round again I fancied another. She accused me of already having helped myself to her balls. My eyes pleaded for more though, and I got it. I’m just lucky that way with hedonistic women. By the time the evening was coming to an end she was sailing around with a bottle (several actually) of Sainsbury’s Port, some of which she lobbed heartily in Mrs C’s glass, more of which she just swigged out of the bottle. It was getting very decadent by this stage, as you can tell.
We were just politely wandering round when a young lady dressed in a dark cloak beckoned to us and encouraged us to go on a journey with her. Always happy to oblige, and with a group of other similarly enticed partygoers, we followed her and her colleague out of the party and into the deep dark secret areas of the theatre. Well, past the toilets to the Underground Studio actually, so not that secret; where we were met by some cavorting nymphs welcoming us to Delphi. We were to take a look round and then join them for tea. Sounded nice. In the middle of the floor of this verdant paradise another lady was lying prostrate. She was the Oracle, we were informed, and once we were taking tea we were invited to ask the Oracle any questions. This could have been very funny indeed, if perhaps we’d had a bit more to drink than we had done, but actually no one could think of any questions and it started to feel slightly embarrassing. Some questions were eventually forthcoming, and the Oracle, true to her word, came up with some pithy answers. The kindly Oracle girls gave us all a coin which they said would be necessary on our continued journey.
Our guides told us it was time to go but they had a special treat for us – to visit the Boatman. So we left the Underground and turned into the Royal Stalls. After much knocking, eventually the boatman answered. It was Charon – not Sharon, as he pointed out. It was highly irregular for us to be transported by him across the River Styx, but as we all had coins for him, he’d make an exception. We followed him in his imaginary boat until we ended up on the stage of the Royal – which was very interesting in itself, to be behind the lovely Safety Curtain, and see the little message written on the back – and also to find that one was basically part of the set of Blood Wedding. Charon told us to wait – and that the light might fade – and out went the lights and we were left darkling. In the pitch black, the storyteller’s voice emerged and told us the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, how she could follow him from Hades, until he looked back…. In this slightly spooky environment Mrs C clung on to me for dear life and I don’t suppose she was the only one. Afterwards Charon released us and sent us on our way to meet King Midas, resplendent on his throne in the Royal Circle foyer. A welcoming king with a welcoming handmaiden, we ate golden grapes and got gold streaks painted on our faces. He wished us good luck on our way. Mrs C noted I had tried on his golden gown last year at the Flathampton Fashion Show. Just because everything he touches turns to gold, there’s no reason not to be occasionally thrifty as well. Once we had solemnly sworn not to tell a soul about where we had been… oh damn, I’ve told you now… we rejoined the party.
By the end of the evening, the Oracle and her girls, Charon and King Midas all made their way into the throng. Midas – I’d dropped the “King” title by now – told me I was looking good for my age. I took it as a compliment. The lady with the bottle of port wanted a dance, which was difficult as I had no time to put down my glass; so it was just a quick cavort. Bloody Lycurgus came and chatted her up and shortly afterwards they were seen giving it all on the dance floor. Just before it was all over, our storyteller returned with a few final words about dear old Dionysus. I was kind of expecting him to make an appearance, until I realised he was of course already here – in the wine, in the food, in the decadence. We toasted him with what was left in our glasses and the party was over. Everyone seemed to have a good time; if you’re the kind of person who swings naturally into party mode with a load of strangers it was the perfect opportunity for fun. We’re not quite like that, but we still enjoyed it and very much appreciated the great effort put in by what must be dozens of people to run the party and perform its entertainments. I understand there was a plan to go on to the Black Bottom Club afterwards and continue drinking until 3am, which originally we thought we would do; but as we had to be up early the next day, we decided against it. Sense prevailed. Take that, Dionysus.