“So, Thebes…I’m back!” declares Alan Cumming as the disguised god Dionysus, descending from the flies upside down, bare-bottomed and manacled in a gold lamé unisex suit.
It is the first of several stunning coups in John Tiffany’s starkly vivid production of The Bacchae by Euripides for the National Theatre of Scotland, premiered at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival and now running in Hammersmith after a brief visit to Glasgow.
The god of wine and ecstasy, son of Zeus by Semele, daughter of Cadmus, is outraged at being an outcast and has formed a tribe of vengeful, orgiastic women, the Bacchae, who are running wild through the mountains; they materialise as a bunch of hot-gospelling red hot mommas in various shades and styles of scarlet, all black and singing the blues.
Their target is Pentheus (Tony Curran), the new young king of Thebes who stands against false gods, as he sees them, and loose living. The classic duel between Dionysus and Pentheus is a cultural stand-off that our contemporary theatre has never quite claimed for its own.
Even in the 1960s, the so-called Age of Aquarius, the British theatre failed to make the obvious connections with the piece (there was a dreadful National Theatre production by Roland Joffe with Constance Cummings playing Agave, Pentheus’ she-devil mother, as Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells), and the Fringe has simply ignored it.
So Tiffany is to be congratulated on making such a spirited fist of the play, and David Greig’s new version is nothing if not striking. But the churning heart of the drama is strangely missing, Cumming seems to throw down a performance rather than embody one, and the complexities of the mythical background have been ditched, along with a lot of the gorgeous, lyrical descriptive poetry of the choruses.
What remains is a sort of art house cabaret, choreographed by Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly, with some incongruous “old bloke” acting from Ewan Hooper as a game old Cadmus and Ralph Riach as the blind seer Tiresias and a series of set-piece interludes from the momma Maenads which are not always comprehensible or authoritative. It’s left to Paola Dionisotti to roar on at the end as the blood-boltered Agave and establish a real sense of hieratic energy.
The palace at Thebes is an abstract white mausoleum – Semele’s tomb – in Miriam Buether’s design, which flares excitingly into flame with a palpable heat as the revenge temperature rises. There’s great use of drums and mikes, too, at the moment of revelation; Tim Sutton’s music and Christopher Shutt’s sound design are effective enough. But, as with the show as a whole, I wanted a great deal more.