The Bacchae review: “distinct and entertaining”

Like many people, I had heard of The Bacchae, and yet had been largely ignorant of its plot and themes. After yesterday’s performance, this was firmly rectified, and, despite a few issues with some of the play’s acting and staging, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

As my first time watching a play in Chad’s Cassidy Quad, the potential of the space became instantly apparent, something which DUCT’s production of The Bacchae for the most part exploited effectively. The architecture of the quad with its ivy-clad pillars lent itself to creating the mysterious atmosphere of ancient Greece. This was further enhanced by a large hanging net strewn with leaves above the audience, giving surprising intimacy to a fairly large room. The result was aided by effective use of lighting throughout, thanks to a skilled tech director, Thérèse Rottner.

These elements of the ancient world contrasted sharply with the modern-branded empty bottles of alcohol strewn across the front of the stage, as well as the exciting beat of contemporary music as the audience entered. Although this succeeded in lending the production a more updated and relevant feeling of decadence (along with use of modern dress), it seemed to slightly detract from giving the production a more cohesive tone. However, this by no means should be taken as a slant upon the costumes themselves; designer should in fact be commended for her work, especially for the eye-catchingly wild dress, hair and make-up of the Bacchants themselves.

However, especially for someone who did not know the plot of The Bacchae, it was disappointing that the play did not begin with a more authoritative air. Dionysus’s (Jason Dhoray) opening speech, in which he outlines his origins and motives, seemed to lack the engaging quality necessary to open such a show. Although this could be put down to first night nerves, Dhoray’s general delivery was occasionally flat and uncertain for someone portraying a god, despite his obvious stage presence. He and Pentheus, King of Thebes (Tom Jacobs) lacked chemistry, and both seemed to be simply waiting on each other’s lines rather than truly acting through their scene. There was a tendency for the staging in these scenes to feel a little static (and sometimes awkward, with the failing of characters to notice those right next to them sometimes testing our suspension of disbelief), which cumulatively lead to a drag in the pacing and an unfortunate fall in audience interest. The drag also often detracted from the actors’ comic timing, causing potentially funny lines and situations to fail in their delivery. Despite this, Jacobs was convincing in his initially stiff stature and snooty expressions as the unbending ruler of Thebes, which made his later shift in character all the more impressive and indicative of his range as an actor.

Similar range was displayed by James Cummings in his portrayal of Cadmus, the grandfather of Pentheus. Alongside Egor Mutovkin’s Teiresias, the pair provided a light-hearted image of two old men’s desire to go dancing the rites of Dionysus, through clear physicality and gesture. Although Mutovkin occasionally had troubles with properly enunciating and projecting his lines, he proved an engaging storyteller, including distinct and entertaining tics to his character. Cummings continued on to create a convincing arc from this charming introduction into a far more subtle and touchingly inward performance, skilfully tracing Cadmus’ descent into grief and despondency by the play’s finale. Alongside him, Honor Halford-MacLeod excelled as Cadmus’ deranged daughter Agave. She firmly succeeded in bringing the character’s intense madness to life with disturbing aplomb as the production reached its shocking climax, despite a tendency to sometimes balance on the cusp of the melodramatic.

Such a histrionic approach is certainly understandable, considering the play’s origins as a Greek tragedy. However, I found some of the more restrained performances the most affecting. This included Magali Guastalegnanne’s turn as the Servant and Sarah MacMillan’s as the Herald, who both in turn conveyed the horrors they had seen with a moving control, effortlessly painting a vivid and terrifying image for the audience with little more than a thousand-yard-stare and a commanding presence.

The play’s titular Chorus certainly proved to be an entertaining element of the play, each of its comprising women acting through their lines with an energetic excitement, which became effectively creepy as they spoke and moved together, demonstrating great control of their physicality. This makes it a bit of shame therefore that this was not exploited further, as some moments again felt slightly empty and static, especially during scene transitions involving the Bacchants. I cannot help but feel that further use of the Quad’s space available (including the aisle and the space to the side) might have helped to rectify this and lend more variation to the staging, so making the moments of emotional stillness as affecting as possible through contrast.

In all, it cannot be denied that I enjoyed the performance, and (despite insistence from the Director’s Note to the contrary) had fun. Despite the aforementioned crinkles in the acting – which I am sure shall be ironed out with further performances as confidences grows – and perhaps a little awkwardness in the staging, Director and her cast and crew should be confident of a job well done, and proud of a production which I am sure many will appreciate in the coming days.

The Bacchae will be performed in the Cassidy Quad of St Chad’s College 24th November – 26th November at 19:30. Tickets are available on the door. 

Photograph: Gregor Petrikovič

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