By Gareth Jenkins
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Themes from the Dawn of Time

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Review of 'Bacchai' by Euripides, National Theatre, London
Issue 264

This astonishing play by the youngest of the three great dramatists of ancient Greece is both very primitive and very modern. The story Euripides took as the basis of his play was a traditional one, well known to its audience. Pentheus, king of Thebes, disguises himself as a woman in order to witness the women-only sacred rites of the followers of the god of wine, Dionysus. Unmasked, he is torn to pieces by his own mother who in her frenzy believes she is killing a wild beast. Yet Euripides handles this traditional story in ways that are modern to his times. The characters argue and express themselves in very human terms, using all the dialectical reasoning typical of the development of Greek thought in the period. Above all, he uses the illusions of theatre–the fact that actors are playing parts, that they use disguise–to explore the limitations of our understanding of our own motives and our own power.

The play starts with the god, Dionysus himself, declaring his determination to impose his wild religion on the city of his birth (his mother, Semele, is Pentheus’s aunt; his father, the king of the gods, Zeus). He disguises himself as a priest of his own cult in order to force his cousin Pentheus to honour the new religion.

Pentheus questions the very idea of Dionysus’s divine origin, seeing in the new cult a new way for the priests to extract money from the credulous. So the scene is set for a clash between scepticism and religious belief. But this conflict between reason and madness is not only a conflict between the internal order of the city and the external disorder which threatens to invade it. It is about the very terms themselves. After all, Dionysus is not an outsider–he is part of the family. Maybe it is Pentheus’s ‘order’ which is disorder. Maybe Dionysus’s religion of ecstatic release in wine and dance has its own justification.

The central confrontation between Dionysus (disguised as his own priest) and Pentheus plays out these ambiguities and contradictions. Pentheus’s determination to clamp down on the new religion becomes an obsession in its own right, a form of madness. His desire to see the secret rites of the women is a consequence of this obsession. He passes from contempt at the ‘womanliness’ of the new cult (personified in Dionysus’s own feminine appearance) to dressing as a Bacchic woman. This disorder becomes a disordered form of perception in which he sees two suns, two cities, two totally different worlds. But he also sees the disguised priest in one of the god’s forms, seeing, as Dionysus ironically puts it, clearly where he was blind before.

So Pentheus’s passage into disguise and disorder is also a passage into discovery–a discovery which will end in destruction. So though at one level the play is founded on the traditional notion of divine punishment for mortals whose pride sets them against the gods, at another level it is Pentheus who is responsible for his own self destruction. These are themes which we are now very familiar with–and the production, with its very colloquial and rather free translation of the original, emphasises them too much in its wish to make the play ‘relevant’ to our times. It is irritating to see the clash between Pentheus and Dionysus as in some sense a clash between the West and fundamentalism from the East–concepts which would have been alien to the ancient Greeks. (And dressing Cadmus, Pentheus’s grandfather, and Tiresias, the old blind priest, in modern linen suits looks decidedly odd.)

Yet the production is often compelling and moving. Following the ancient Greek convention, only three actors play all the roles (including the female roles). Wearing masks is therefore essential–a device which allows the actors to concentrate on making the language, rather than facial expression, carry the force of the often horrific emotion. Having the same actor who has played Pentheus play his mother in her one scene at the end, when she enters with his head on a spike, adds an extra dimension. And the actor who plays the dominant role, that of the god, is stunning.

The music, composed by a leading modernist, Harrison Birtwhistle, and the Chorus, who speak and dance, are excellent. Despite director Peter Hall’s desire to play down some aspects of the play’s historical specificity in the interests of enhancing its modernism, this production reveals the extraordinary power of a masterpiece from the dawn of theatre.

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