The Bacchae

Euripides
Kneehigh Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse
(2004)

Kneehigh is riding the crest of a wave at the moment. The company's last show, The Wooden Frock, has been nominated for a TMA Best Touring Production Award - and if there's any justice their new adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae will be a front runner for next year's gongs.

From the moment when the all-male chorus of Bacchae make their first appearance, tripping coyly across the stage clad only in their girdles, we realize that this isn't Euripides as we know it. When the "ladies" climb into the flowing ballet skirts that descend magically from the flies, twirling and preening like little girls at their first dance lesson, we are transported to Kneehigh's skewed fairytale world - a surreal carnival of simple yet stunning visual images, music, inspired visual gags and some highly imaginative uses for newspaper

Euripides' original play goes something like this: Zeus impregnates Semele, Princess of Thebes, and his jealous wife Hera kills Semele with a thunderbolt. Zeus saves the embryo by sewing it into his thigh and the child grows up to be the god Dionysus, who eventually returns to his mother's homeland in mortal form to spread his cult. Pentheus, King of Thebes, refuses to tolerate the foreign religion that is spreading like wildfire among the women of the city - even his mother Agave has become a wild huntress in the mountains. Dionysus tricks Pentheus into dressing as a woman and spying on the Bacchae, and, to the surprise of no-one familiar with Greek tragedy, the King ends up being beheaded by his own mother.

In director Emma Rice's reworking of the ancient revenge tragedy, the sound of revelry in the street is already penetrating the royal Palace as the women of Thebes throw off their inhibitions (and presumably don tutus). Pentheus, assisted by a PA even more anally retentive than himself, does his level best to outwit the bizarre Eastern guru who claims to be a god and dresses like a combination of Madonna and Tommy Cooper. Agave (Eva Magyar), who once ridiculed her sister Semele for claiming to be pregnant by Zeus, is an unhappy woman desperate to escape the stultifying atmosphere of the Palace (her costume, a simple shift dress worn with a headscarf and dark glasses, makes her resemble Jackie Kennedy). Her seduction by Dionysus (Robert Lucskay) and subsequent descent into bloody madness is superbly realized.

Throughout the drama the Bacchae provide musical interludes, do some unusual things with paper, interview one another Jerry Springer style and take part in the onstage slaughter of an adorable lamb puppet (sheep lovers may prefer to avert their eyes from this gratuitous act of ovicide). It may not, strictly speaking, be Euripides, but it's superb theatre.

"The Bacchae" plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 16th October, then tours to Liverpool, Salisbury, London, Truro and Bristol

David Chadderton reviewed this priduction at Liverpool Playhouse and Kevin Catchpole at Salisbury Playhouse.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson