There are as many ways of staging this drama by Euripides as there are days in the year. It's a deeply ambiguous play, and the relationship between Dionysus and the audience is the key to that ambiguity. In this powerful Almeida theatre production by James Macdonald, Ben Whishaw's first key moment comes when he ambles on stage at the start in blue trousers and a loose white teeshirt, like an actor warming up for a performance. When he assumes his role as the God, he's wearing a dress and his hair falls down beyond his shoulders, giving him a seductive aura somewhere between Conchita Wurst and Rasputin. With a quick twist of the hips and and shake of the wrists, Whishaw just hints at the power of the performance he is about to give. But it's in the nature of Greek tragedy that key moments of the action take place off stage and are narrated afterwards. We the audience feel the destructive potential of this character, but don't actually witness much of it in action.
Eight years ago I saw an outstanding production of this play, directed by John Tiffany, in which Alan Cumming used the opening scene to seduce the audience, luring us into a sense of complicity. But in the second half of the play we realised we had become best mates with a murderous psychopath. Macdonald and Whishaw have opted for a different interpretation, which is more about multiple identities. Dionysys claims to be a God, but we know he's just wearing a theatrical costume, every bit as bogus as the Thatcherite two-piece that Pentheus uses to disguise himself. And when Pentheus is slaughtered, the Dionysus who appears to tell the tale appears to be genuinely shocked. He is catapulted on stage, stripped of his fancy dress, and seemingly horrified by what he has done. At the end of the play, while the other characters are smeared with what looks like black engine oil, Dionysus is drenched in the stuff, suggesting his attempt to sidestep human morality by becoming a God has failed.
Well, that's my interpretation. There are plenty of others, and it may have nothing to do with what the director intended -- which is why the play is so fascinating. While Whishaw is the main attraction, Bertie Carvel delivers a comic edge to the role of Pentheus, who at first seems like a keen young Home Office minister, determined to 'put a stop to this Bacchic nonsense'. But this man is deeply attracted to the androgynous Dionysus, who stands unnervingly close to him with his 'long hair and bedroom eyes'. Pentheus seems just a little too enthusiastic in his embrace of a new gender, enjoying the application of lipstick just a little too much, and taking pleasure in the way he allows Dionysus to adjust his hair. 'I don't see any God,' he proclaims. We know better -- or do we? Perhaps Pentheus is right all along in failing to see any sign of Dionysus's spurious divinity.
This production follows the Greeks in using just three actors. Whishaw makes a brief appearance as the blind Tiresias, while Kevin Harvey plays several parts, including the aged Cadmos. Carvel takes on the role of the murdering Agave, clutching the severed head of her son Pentheus in the misguided belief that she has killed a lion. That's what happens when you get muddled between theatre and real life. Carvel seems to be rather close to the limit of his dramatic range as an actor as the deranged Agave.
The production uses a free and often colloquial new version of the text by Anne Carson which is full of surprises and serves very well. I have kept the really outstanding element to the end -- the music by Orlando Gough, superbly sung by the chorus of 10 women. It gives the play the feel of a chamber opera and takes it into a different dimension, using what sounds to my ignorant ears like a traditional Bulgarian a capella idiom. The ticket price is worth paying just hear and see the chorus.