An underground car park – pillars, electrical mountings, side offices, a lift shaft, and a bashed up abandoned old car. Walk through that innocuous looking door at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo old print works and you enter a surprising world. A world where security CCTV systems maintain a regime headed by a spoilt king with a manipulative mother, protected by a Head of Security who can instantly summon a line of hard riot cops to intimidate and overthrow any attempts to subvert the system; but where a new cult frenzy is spreading that has caused all the women of the city to abandon their homes and run freely in the hills, thereby gaining superhuman strength; a fervour whipped up to such an extent that people simply do not know what they are doing but become overpowered by the lure of Dionysus and all he represents.
This modern version of Euripides’ The Bacchae adapted by Rosanna Lowe and directed by Laurie Sansom is presented by the Royal and Derngate as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London Festival 2012 along with their production of Blood Wedding, with which it plays in repertory. I’m sadly ignorant about ancient Greek drama on the whole, so we thought it would be a good idea to attend the talk “Suppressing the Urge” that took place at the theatre before the performance. Professor Chris Carey is meant to know his stuff; we thought he’d give us a good introduction to the play; and in any case, he’s Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle, so it would have been rude not to go! It was a very amusing and informative talk – and definitely gave us some pointers to watch out for when we saw the play later on.
I’d seen the production photographs for the Bacchae and they did make it look exciting, but nothing quite prepares you for the astonishing way this production fills this disused industrial space. Takis’ design is one of the most exhilarating adaptations of a space I have ever seen. It’s not warm; it’s not cosy; it’s harsh and hostile. It’s the perfect setting for this smart, highly modern, zippy version of the Bacchae, sacrificing some of the beauty – and rightly so I believe – of the original Greek poetry for convincing hard-hitting modern idiom. There are scenes of comedy and tragedy; music songs and chants; some buttock-clenchingly unsettling discomfort; and some no-holds barred horror that will make you swear to vegetarianism for the rest of your life.
This production tells its age-old story magnificently well and leaves you with some outstandingly memorable mental images that are hard to shake off even after a few days. It’s also full of extraordinary performances. The company works hard to achieve fine drama in Blood Wedding but here you somehow feel they enjoy themselves much more – energy, intensity and a sparkiness in their performances simply crackle with delight with apparent effortlessness. When it comes to Chaos, Euripides trumps Lorca’s ace. It flows freely from its central character and occupies the landscape and all its inhabitants. Expect the unexpected, as Dionysus warns us on his surprise first entrance. He’s everywhere and he’s got a lot to answer to.
After Dionysus has introduced us to his world, and revealed the shrine to his mother Semele, his followers, the Bacchantes appear and use the car park as their base to plot, to worship, to avenge and to plunge the world further into chaos. The acoustics mean you hear absolutely everything clear as a bell, which suits their challenging and aggressive alarums and excursions. They make a really effective chorus. I particularly loved the show-stopping number led by Alicia Davies in fine form, but they were all excellent and linked scenes together with great pace and menace.
There were two remarkable scenes in the play that for me expressed the special degree of trust between the actors that you always get with a Laurie Sansom production. Pentheus’ mother, Agave, played by Kathryn Pogson, quickly becomes entranced by the Bacchantes when she comes down to the basement to see what all the fuss is about. The spirit of Dionysus quickly embeds itself in her and what started as a confrontation becomes a dreamlike dance of rapture, where she is passed from follower to follower, sailing through the air on an enveloping wave of bliss. It’s a beautiful, balletic sequence, and showed fantastically well how the Bacchantes assimilated Agave. It’s also a great symbol for what Dionysus can be, as this beautiful, calm dance sets in motion Agave’s murder of her own son – you can’t get sharper contrasts. The gruesome scene where she slowly realises what she has done, bringing in Pentheus’ flayed head that she is devouring with hedonistic pleasure, is a gripping performance. The horror of realisation fills in to her face, even while she is still chomping on a bit of son, and her subsequent agonised remorse is one of those moments you don’t forget in a hurry.
Pentheus is played by Liam Bergin as a sharp-suited spoilt Mummy’s boy of a king, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing that can overcome Dionysus’ hold. He gives a good account of petulant annoyance at the security lapses and his fury that Dionysus has escaped imprisonment is real and tangible. He may bark angry threats and try to preserve his whining authority but you know from the start he is doomed. Ery Nzaramba’s Dionysus has an electrifying presence, a manipulating god from the start – you even feel uncomfortable in the opening and closing scenes when he is addressing the audience in case he somehow gets into you too. His voice encompasses power, influence and cheekiness. He teases, he cajoles, he mocks; he won’t be silenced. His scene with Pentheus where he undresses the king so he can change his appearance to spy on the women is another of those extraordinary trust-between-actor moments. Mr Nzaramba is calm and controlling, deceptively supportive and encouraging; Mr Bergin’s face portrays the point where agony and ecstasy meet, sweating buckets in intense vulnerability. A creepy, sensual, erotic, frightening, awful moment, and quite brilliant.
Humour is supplied courtesy of Tiresias (Robert Benfield) and Cadmus (Jim Bywater) a couple of old Bacchanial sots who are happy to worship because of the drink – I always enjoy it when a toy teddy bear comes to life. The play also features an excellent performance by Philip Cairns as Pentheus’ head of security – a self-sacrificing, unquestioning supporter who only functions to protect and obey.
This is one of those productions where you go on thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. Every so often a new thought comes into your head about it – a fresh insight, a sudden realisation, an unexpected appreciation. There’s a lot going on during those 100 minutes of non-stop drama. I think it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t have some kind of life after this season ends. It should at least be recorded for television or DVD. But the key to the success of this show is the outstanding overall vision of how this classic tale could be brought right up to date, transforming a dead brownfield environment into a place of vibrant artistic excellence. If you enjoy experimental innovation in your theatregoing, you’re going to love this.