Bacchai

Euripides, translated by Colin Teevan

RNT Olivier

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

Those who saw and enjoyed Tantalus last year will like Bacchai just as much. With the help of translator Colin Teevan and composer Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Hall has directed yet another masked Greek tragedy.

The style is very similar to that of Tantalus and two of the three main parts are played by stars of that production, Greg Hicks and David Ryall. Last year's RSC Henry V, William Houston, makes up the leading triumvirate.

In support, there is a large chorus, a group of ethereal Theban women and some soldiers who look as if they have arrived straight from a 1950s sci-fi film.

This play might as easily have been called The Tragedy of Pentheus, a man whose name symbolically means grief. He is the son of Agave and, cleverly, both parts are played by William Houston. Pentheus is that supreme optimist, the king who takes on a Greek God. In this case, the God is Dionysus (or Bacchus) whose role includes not only the performing arts but also wine.

Colin Teevan's translation is contemporary but retains something of the feel of the original language even at the cost of being rather didactic. It is also often funny even at the goriest moments. In this, Peter Hall is greatly assisted by another excellent, dry performance from Greg Hicks in three separate parts. He is Dionysus wearing a gold, bull's head mask, a rather camp servant with blond dreadlocks who leads poor Pentheus on and also the blind seer Teiresias who forms a great comic double-act with David Ryall's Cadmus.

Harrison Birtwistle's music is rarely melodic but using a combination of percussion and wind, he creates a traditional feel that is enhanced by Vicki Hallam's lifelike masks and Peter Mumford's lighting. In fact, the masks are almost too good, as they sometimes seem to take on a character of their own.

This production achieves a nice balance between the comic and the tragic elements of the play and also manages to feel very contemporary as, amongst other subjects, it addresses issues of immigration. It advances at a fast pace assisted by good performances not only from the three stars but also the chorus who keep things moving with much dramatic storytelling.

Played on a round stage, The Bacchai builds up to a great climax as Pentheus, who sadly fails to learn the wisdom of humility until it is too late, meets his allotted end and the golden Dionysus dramatically rises above the mortal stage.

This production forsakes some of the stuffiness that can be associated with the classics and this may not be to everybody's taste. However, the very desirable corollary to this is that it is constantly sharp and entertaining.