Adapted from Euripides by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Kneehigh Theatre with West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Lyric Hammersmith and Hall for Cornwall
As soon as the play opens with the entrance of a group of men in just their underwear displaying a childlike fascination for their surroundings and their audience, it is clear that this is a Kneehigh production. Kneehigh is a Cornwall-based company with a very distinctive and inventive style displayed in previous productions such as the wonderful The Red Shoes, which has now been applied to Euripides's play The Bacchae.
These curious men lower white skirts from hangers high on the stage and put them on to become the women of the Bacchae, who keep filling us in on the current state of the story using narration, songs, role-play and some improvised visual aids, mostly made from pages torn from newspapers. They also give the funniest lecture on the relationship between Greek gods and mortals that you are ever likely to see. Their routines contain many elements of traditional pantomime including slapstick, audience participation and even a community song, but they are written and performed with originality and genuine humour.
At times it appears that all of this, as entertaining as it is, has left the story behind somewhere, but when the serious moments come they can be stunningly effective. The ending in particular is gripping, from the horrific act on Pentheus by his mother to her horrible realisation of what she has actually done. At the centre of the story is the battle between the serious and committed King Pentheus and the god Dionysus, dressed in a brown suit, gold stilettos and a very tall red hat, who brings chaos and disorder to Thebes.
This is a very free adaptation of Euripides that is not exactly traditional Greek tragedy, but then Euripides was a bit of a rebel himself. It is a hugely entertaining, inventive and often very funny production with a talented ensemble cast of actors and musicians that will certainly give the parties of college students in the audience plenty to discuss.
"The Bacchae" runs until 23 October 2004 and continues to tour into 2005
Reviewer: David Chadderton