Theatre

Director Adena Jacobs takes a classic Greek tragedy and sets it free – with an erotic vengeance – in the hands of a troupe of teenage girls. By Peter Craven.

Theatre Works’ ‘The Bacchae’

Carla Tilley in 'The Bacchae'.
Credit: Pia Johnson

How weird and wonderful that a bare month or so after her production of Antigone to a metatext derived at several removes from Sophocles by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, who also played the Creon figure renamed simply the Leader, Adena Jacobs should mount a piece of physical theatre, using a team of younger teenage girls, inspired by The Bacchae of Euripides, and that this meditation on, rather than enactment of, the classic text should in its choric orchestration be so boisterous and rich and unearthly.

It is a piece rooted in the mystery and omnipresence of sexuality and, perhaps more strictly, physical metamorphosis for jeunes filles en fleur. But in practice this circus of hypothetical erotomania and orgiastic abandonment of identity has a strange ensemble chastity and a quality of restraint – within the parameters of the no-holds-barred scenario – that is in its way, remotely but distinctly, a homage to the great Euripidean original.

For that was Euripides, famous as a great hater of mankind with a deep sympathy for women. Euripides, who his contemporary Sophocles said showed people as they were, where he himself showed them as they should be. Euripides, that proto-naturalist and expressionist of his day, the Strindberg of fifth-century Athens.

They found the text of The Bacchae among his papyri after his death in 406BC and staged it in Athens a year later. It has that unmistakable quality of luminosity and pleasing-yourself audacity that sometimes overtakes the greatest artists at the very end: Monet’s half-glimpsed waterlilies, Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, the last plays of Shakespeare, the string quartets of Beethoven.

In The Bacchae, the god Dionysus, the lord of the sensual and the unspeakable, sends the women of Thebes, mad with every lust and bestiality, into the mountains. The young king Pentheus, poor blind prig, refuses to acknowledge Dionysus despite the wise, not unhumorous, counsels of his grandfather Cadmus and that old sightless seer, Tiresias. Dionysus or his avatar, a dazzling masked stranger, is initially mocked and locked up by the king but eventually persuades him to dress as a woman. The upshot is that the young king does so in some weird moment of impassioned longing and he is torn apart by the women on the mountain who take him for a beast and are led by his mother, Agave.

One of the most terrible moments in all drama is the moment when the mother, no longer blind with lust and sadism and bestiality, realises that she holds the severed head of her son.

The Bacchae is a play where the starkest and most transfigured tragedy meets with the wildest grotesquerie. It is also the Greek drama where the lyrical element is predominant and where the chorus virtually becomes the protagonist of the play and where the words have an imagistic magic that somehow survives in any translation.

It was done at the Almeida in London only a few weeks ago, in the translation of Anne Carson, one of the greatest of all contemporary poets, in a production, which following the Greeks used men, with Ben Whishaw as Dionysus and Bertie Carvel of Matilda fame as both Pentheus and Agave.

It’s that sense of collective identity and identity loss, that sense of female abandon, which Adena Jacobs concentrates on in her co-production with Theatre Works and St Martins Youth Theatre for the Melbourne Festival, for what she describes as essentially a brooding on The Bacchae – presumably in contrast to Griffiths’ Lowellian imitation of the Sophocles.

We begin with a dazzling bit of visual pyrotechnics in which some beast or bugaboo – is it a lion, an occluded man in a balaclava? – does battle with a woman. The atmospheric is grandiloquent, like a massacre observed in a flash by Titian.

Then we’re with a young teenage girl (Eve Nixon) in a denim shirt who says she didn’t know what to wear so she searched and searched the tumbled pile of clothes in her bedroom until she found something that wouldn’t smell too much and then she went out to the kitchen and asked her mum who said she looked alright but she did smell a bit. So she covered and covered herself with as much perfume as she could find. So far, so domestic: just the faint aroma of pubertal life where bodies are a girl’s own responsibility and own private nightmare. Then she announces to the audience in a flat suburban voice that she is the god Dionysus and that if they don’t believe her they will be punished. The words are even flashed up a bit later, like an adage in a Colin McCahon painting. This is in a headline the theme of The Bacchae of Euripides, if you want to reduce it to a leader writer’s dream.

What follows is weird and dark and enchanting, as well as breathless and unspotted and fresh. The stage fills with androgynous young girls: Carla Tilley strikingly genderless in a slender dark wavy-haired way; Mieke Singh Dodd with her short blue hair and stocky build fleetingly like a young tough guy in the making.

And these girls proceed to perform a complex, half-intelligible ballet that mimes both the beauties and the squalors of an eroticism that always has the aura of both a secret rite and a mystery that is performed in a trance, in a state of enchantment. They glide, they shimmy, they stomp and you do get a sense, at once ethereal and bodily, of a collective spirit, lyrically apprehended, that is seeing the world of adult sexuality, in particular of the threat of male violence and rape – as well, perhaps, as the female appropriation of its idiom; sometimes Sapphic, sometimes not – as innocence’s prophetic apprehension through the medium of something like a dream of the actions and fantasies of experience.

Accompanying all this there is Kelly Ryall’s electronic and ambient music, as well as strings and unearthly voices. There is the soprano of a boy in a blue sports top, Julian De Marco, looking – he would, wouldn’t he? – like a sacrificial offering dressed up for the slaughter. And Bella Noonan who, with her more mature female tones, takes on the voice of a dawning adulthood.

In the midst of all this there is a magical moment where a very young-looking girl, Bridie Noonan, sits on a sofa, book in hand and feigns to read – though she in fact knows the passage by heart – Euripides’ descriptions of the maenads on the mountain, in the glades and hills, and among the pines.

Noonan has a wonderful stillness; she is effortlessly natural and yet she casts an absolute spell
in this eerie moment of stasis in this consistently thrusting and stomping show, this ballet of the berserk and the lust-torn.

Elsewhere there are choruses of girls masked in black jockey caps, in bras and pants; there are girls like gimps in total sadistic black masks, the terrorist’s or the executioner’s balaclava, with heavy plastic sixpacks covering their chests. There are girls with batons belting out unspeakable rhythms to the heavy thud of the music. There are girls inside the head of a giant felt-looking Minnie Mouse signifying heaven knows what.

And there is a great mad dancing mob of girls with hairy phalluses threatening and surging and doing the motions of a masculinist world no one quite wants them to know about and everyone thinks they should be on guard against.

And, yes, the whole thing is compatible with the curse of the god Dionysus who is not mocked.

On opening night, as the girls of the St Martins Youth Theatre received a stomping, whooping ovation, they started to look younger by the second. As if the vengeance visited on and by the Bacchae had possessed them like a dream.

 

Arts Diary

THEATRE The Bacchae

Theatre Works, St Kilda, until October 24

THEATRE Blood Bank

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until November 22

FASHION Adelaide Fashion Festival

Various venues, October 22-25

MULTIMEDIA Liveworks: Festival of Experimental Art

Carriageworks, Sydney, October 22-November 7

MUSIC Patti Smith's Horses

Melbourne Town Hall, October 18

Last chance

SPOKEN WORD Liner Notes: Ziggy Stardust

ACMI, Melbourne, October 17

VISUAL ART Ink Remix: Contemporary art from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong

Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, until October 18

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2015 as "Bacchae's march". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.