Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Bakkhai (aka Bacchae) by Euripides, presented at Stratford in a new translation & adaptation by renowned Canadian poet and writer Anne Carson, is a very powerful play. Indeed, it has been considered one of the world’s most powerful tragedies since its initial performance at the Dionysia drama festival in Athens, 405 B.C. E., at which Euripides was awarded a posthumous award. Euripides (c. 486 B.C.E.-406 B.C.E.) is also the author of Medea, The Trojan Women, Elektra, and Iphigenia at Aulis, among many other works. Note that the plays I mentioned are not only about extreme situations, they also have women as central characters.
So does this play. The 7-woman Chorus, the Bakkhai, take a major role in the action of the play, although the principal conflict is between Dionysus, god of wine, sexuality, ecstasy, and theatre, and his human cousin Pentheus. Pentheus’s mother, Agave – Dionysus’s aunt – is a tragic and heart-rending figure in the story. Dionysus, we learn, is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Agave’s sister Semele (who has perished by fire) – but Agave has denied Dionysus’s divinity. He seeks revenge on her – and even more on Pentheus, who also denies Dionysus’s power, seeks to punish his women followers, the Bakkhai, and devalues our human need for the sensual, erotic, ecstatic aspects of life.
Director Jillian Keiley, artistic director of English theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre, has created an impeccable, tightly-woven, multi-dimensional theatrical event that pulls the actors and audience deeper and deeper into the inevitable, shattering violence – and its tragic aftermath and self-knowledge. It is a play to be experienced, physically, emotionally, imaginatively. It describes graphic violence, but always within artistic form.
In her program notes, Keiley says she sees the play as an elusive public dream, which cannot be tied to one definite meaning or theme: not feminism, not a comment on religion and politics and how they can “pervert to violence,” not arrogance or denial (of the gods, or of sexuality). Yet all these and more are there; the play is full of meaningful ambiguities, inner as well as outer conflict. To me, it talks about the dangers of extremes – extreme rationality and repression, and also extreme liberty and sensuality.
In 1968, I was fortunate to work for a time with Richard Schechner, director and theatre guru, on his production of Dionysus in 69, an experimental version of this play by The Performance Group in New York; in a later interview, Schechner said that “tragedy is about a problem that cannot be solved because the problem is existence” itself; there is always a price to pay for what we do, or do not do. These motifs are as relevant today as in ancient Greece.
The Chorus of Bakkhai – women of Thebes – work beautifully together, through poetry, chanting, and dance. They are a multi-generational and multi-cultural sisterhood that reveal beauty, fierceness, and awareness: Sarah Afful, Jasmine Chen, Laura Condlin, Rosemary Dunsmore, Quelemia Sparrow, Diana Tso, and Bahia Watson.
Mac Fyfe’s Dionysus is a seductive, charismatic figure, moving with panther-like grace and menace, in contrast to Gordon S. Miller’s bull-headed Pentheus, obsessive in his need to control. The scene where Dionysus convinces Pentheus to dress up in women’s clothing and spy on the Bakkhai shows masterful acting by both men: Dionysus setting his trap and Pentheus revealing the lusts that underlie his puritanism.
As Agave, Lucy Peacock gives a breath-taking performance. I won’t give away the climax, but her final scene, with her father Kadmos – movingly played by Nigel Bennett – has us on the edge of our seats as she goes from one extreme emotion to another. Kadmos and Tiresisas (the blind prophet, portrayed with dignity and humour by Graham Abbey), accept Dionysus – but then Kadmos has to deal with the bitter consequences. “Minor” characters – Andre Morin’s servant, Brad Hodder’s guard, and E.B. Smith’s herdsman – all add texture.
The play is staged in the round at the Tom Patterson Theatre, and Shawn Kerwin, designer, gives us a bare stage with a central platform, enhanced by Cimmeron Meyer’s lighting, which drenches the platform in a circle of deep red that suggests all the meanings of this colour: passion, lust, blood, anger, and more. Red light also highlights the white robes of the chorus. Don Ellis’s sound design intensifies the ongoing emotional experience. (At one point it began raining outside, and the beat of the storm blended with the dramatic soundscape.) Shelley Harrison, Musical Director, and Tonia Sina, “Intimacy Choreographer,” add their talents to the theatrical experience. Even if you are not familiar with Greek drama, this is a play to see.
Bakkhai continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson, Stratford, to September 23.