It does set you up for a fall when the only Greek tragedy you’ve ever come across is the story of Oedipus, as told by an anarchic ex-English teacher. Albeit a passionate one, but anarchic and terrifying enough to put me off Thebes for life. And yet, I seemed to behold an historic moment, perched on the edge of my aisle seat in the Almeida’s sitting-room-masquerading-as-a-theatre, breathing in this millennia old storytelling. But, however dramatically clichéd such a statement is, I feel daft for doubting otherwise.
Bakkhai, or The Bacchae to go by its original name, was written by Euripides in 450 BC, some two and a half thousand years ago. Enter Dionysus, the god of wine, in mortal form: white t-shirt, skinny jeans, laced converse. Automatically I hate him. A cool, young, hipster god. The worst kind. But then he starts to speak and we begin to fall into his divine hand and there comes that first flush of guilt. He has unexpected comic charm, does Whishaw. Considering the plot synopsis reads like some absurd comedy sketch of Monty Python ilk, his calm manner plays with witty ease.
Now Dionysus, denied a true god by the rest of the royals, has begun turning women into the Maenads, who dance around the woods, attacking and dismembering passers-by without one fleck of remorse. These strange women of the hills are not to be confused with The Chorus, the a cappella group interspersing scenes with strange chants and tribal sounds, summoned by Dionysus to sing his glory while he’s away in the mountains.
And while all this surely illegal palava is going on, Bertie Carvel’s commanding King Pentheus (who also plays his own mother, Agave), wants this nemesis of his imprisoned, to stop all these unsavory goings-on.
It’s completely headstrong in the way it wants to tell this story, perhaps because it has been told countless times, in countless ways. The dynamic soundscape – from silence to epic noise in one crashing swoop – engulfs the tiny room, amplified by the minimal barren set, cold walls and slab-like stage. Its powerful stuff, using noise, almost bestial noise, animalistic prehistoric noise to accompany an otherwise simple plot.
With all three male leads playing multiple characters – from elders to Kings to mad women – the idiosyncratic performances from each keep the narrative striding forward. Try and catch their eyes – the place is small enough for such an encounter – and feel the reality of their spoken words. I did and on several occasions felt that veil of anonymity lift, exposed, like all those on stage. The Chorus never leave in the two surprisingly swift hours, sat atop rocks observing the action between their bittersweet music, drawing all eyes to the ever-developing god before us, and all the destruction his movements slowly draw out.
Maybe it was something to do with the nature of a tragedy, but I couldn’t help but pre-empt potential on-stage disasters: Bertie Carvel tottering down the mountain-scape set in his new stilettos, only to fall in an ankle-breaking mess; the shaky stage sliding off its perch, flipping actors into the laps of the bemused front row; Ben Whishaw, in blind old-man mode, pushing too far and impaling an audience member’s face with his long wooden stick. That’s what the atmosphere does (or did to me, anyway), forcing you into an almost trance-like state, in knowing that catastrophic events will arise at some point (they just have to), but at the same time being wholeheartedly compelled by this multi-sensory explosion.
I think it is safe to say that Whishaw is a good judge of what’s good and what’s not. The Whishaw rule of thumb remains strong. Trust his judgement and you’ll always have a fine evening. And despite my anarchic ex-teacher, I’m booked to go again.
Bakkhai is playing at Almeida Theater, London until 19th September