The last year has brought out-of-town audiences greater exposure to the great theatre of ancient Greece than probably the entire decade which preceded it, and that has proved to be a uniquely enriching experience. Kneehigh Theatre's The Bacchae - despite the fact that its programme neglects to give even a name-check to Euripides - is undoubtedly the best of a pretty good bunch.
This new version, by writers Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, is stuffed with resonances. Some are unlooked-for and puzzlingly a little unwelcome. The design, by Bill Mitchell - a tall, scaffolding cube with ladders, ropes and pulleys laying bare and celebrating the theatre as a tool of story-telling - recalls the (admittedly more elaborate but similarly celebratory) set of Improbable Theatre's Hanging Man; as does the tentative, embarrassed entry of the weird chorus to start the play, and later the hanging figure of Dionysus upstage centre.
Other resonances, though, are entirely welcome and are rooted deep in the long and fertile culture of pan-European theatre. As befits a company from Cornwall, where the UK's two oldest theatrical sites are to be found, the production is grounded in rough theatre and much by-play with the audience (Kneehigh has become what its Cornish predecessor, Footsbarn, ought to have become but was too intellectually lazy). Most exciting, however, it shows the clear influence - perhaps for the first time in the British theatre - of Wlodzimierz Staniewski's Gardzienice theatre company in Poland with its often violently exciting physicality, its use of ritual and music and, at one point, hand-held lighting. Director Emma Rice's time in Poland was clearly a seminal experience.
Ah yes, the plot. As the Bacchae - here a camp sextet of topless chaps in rehearsal frocks, full of merry japes and generally more recognisable as a chorus to Ivor Novello than to Euripides, one would think - explain, with the help of blackboard and chalk diagrams, it's all a bit complicated. Suffice it to say that Dionysus, son of Zeus but with a human mother (so not generally recognised as a god), returns to Thebes to avenge the murder of his mother that took place at the time of his birth. To do this he gets all the townswomen partying and seduces the mother of King Pentheus, one of the murderesses, to such ecstasy that she kills her own son. Dionysus sends her in torment on her way with "It would have been better if you had never been born" echoing in her ears. It inevitably loses something in the foreshortening.
We are left guessing by a less than informative (but disgracefully expensive) programme as to individual performances, but it seems clear that the manic, menacingly laconic Dionysus of Robert Lucskay and the superbly controlled queen mother of Eva Magyar - from frosty queen mother to abandoned whore - head an excellent ensemble production. Precisely why the ladies of The Bacchae are played as a bunch of effeminates remains a mystery; but they are very entertaining. And the whole is a glorious celebration of the European tradition of theatre in all its depth.
- Ian Watson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds)