Whishaw Is God-Like In Less-Than Immaculate Production

Bakkhai ★★★☆☆

By Londonist Last edited 35 months ago
Whishaw Is God-Like In Less-Than Immaculate Production Bakkhai 3
Ben Whishaw and the cast of Bakkhai, Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Bakkhai, the second in the Almeida’s Greek season trilogy this year, is a witty and intelligent modernisation of Euripides’s ancient tragedy. Under the direction of James Macdonald, a masterful cast led by Ben Whishaw playing a highly charismatic Dionysus re-enacts the battle between the rational and the sensual sides of man. For a tale that depicts the passionate abandon of the women of Thebes to a god of wine and wildness, however, we were left strangely unmoved.

Here is the tale of the god Dionysos, who comes to Thebes as a human to avenge the slanderous suggestion that he is not the son of Zeus — a theory proclaimed by Pentheus, King of Thebes. Anne Carson’s new version of the text is lyrical and engaging, and the clashes between repressive state and anarchic rebellion poignantly places this well-trodden story within today’s contentious climate.

Whishaw’s performance is consummate. His opening monologue is stunning, drawing the audience in with a playful disdain of his new human form, his arrogance charming and repelling in turns, establishing an unnerving character ambiguity that continues throughout the play.

He is counterpoised with Pentheus (Bertie Carvel), whose obsession with law and order appears much more mad than the god’s call for an intoxicated release of the senses. As Pentheus, Carvel is commanding and entirely convincing. When playing Pentheus’s mother Agave, however, his performance wears thin and the emotional power that could and should resonate as she realises that she has brutally murdered her own son left us cold. It is only with the breakdown of Cadmos, Agave’s father, played by Kevin Harvey, that the terrible reality of Pentheus’s death becomes poignant.

The all-female chorus build atmosphere with their harmonic voices and unsettling rhythmic beating when in states of trance. Whilst vocally beautiful the ensemble is at times physically awkward, however the general visual and aural effect of the troupe of women commenting on the action and enacting Bacchic ecstasy is powerful

This production is excellently crafted, and there are various striking moments that stand out; the piecing together of Pentheus’s torn body parts, and Whishaw’s return to stage as god rather than man, adorned with Bull’s horns, spring to mind. Overall all, however, there is a richness and an excess to this ancient Greek tale that in this production lies, sadly, untapped.

Bakkhai runs at the Almeida until 19 September. Tickets £10-£38. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

By Savannah Whaley

Last Updated 02 August 2015