Bakkhai: Almeida Theatre, Friday 24th July 2015 *

July 26, 2015


The grief of a character Bertie Carvel plays at one point in this play was painful to the point that it felt obscene, wrong of me not to look away – it was intrusive to witness. By the end of the play I could feel myself shaking, such was the level of intensity, though I couldn’t explain why. Given that this was just the second preview, I have a feeling, a bit more time and it is going to get even better.

Bakkhai is high in atmosphere and addresses timeless themes of power and control.+ It is sensual, hypnotic and ultimately dark, sinister, cruel, chilling and terrifying. It has electric chemistry between its two leads and a powerful atmosphere from its chorus. At the same time, the two lead characters are both horrible really and the women in the play all speak as one and have no individual minds. Am I selling it yet?

I found the play most alive when Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel as the God Dionysos and the King Pentheus do battle on stage together and spark off each other. And if you want to recount some sort of moral about war not being too far from love, this play definitely goes there… by the end of their stage time together, Dionysos and Pentheus’ dynamic is so sexually charged that you’re tantalized (I really thought for a moment they were going to kiss. Tad disappointed. Oh well. Sigh.) Of course, this is just as Dionysos wants it to be.


Ben Whishaw plays the God Dionysos. He is initially so charming and alluring that who wouldn’t believe this sensual being mesmerises all? Who is not in agreement with his (supposed!) notion of utter freedom? With him there is wine, love, wilderness… You not only understand why everyone loves and willingly follows Dionysos, you agree with him and feel he is right and should be followed! Who wouldn’t follow him up a mountain and submit to his any request?

Because that is what Dionysos demands. Complete submission. And it is not apparent at first quite how sinister this will be. Really, in the hypnotic, en-masse, cult-like behaviour of the Bakkhai, you should completely realise this long before you actually do as it is apparent (or perhaps I’m slow!) But then Dionysos is very convincing. Was anyone not under his spell? Dionysos is a God and he enforces a God’s control on all. Although he is evil, callous, cruel, and very concerned by control, Whishaw never acts anything other than charming and free as a sensual spirit… it is through his actions you understand his brutality.

Whishaw is alluring, capricious, manipulative, playful, free, clever, observant and otherworldly. Ben has I think a skill for being able to convince as characters who are not entirely human which works wonderfully here. He also always delivers every line so naturally it is effortless. And here he has a character who is many dichotomous things at once. Is that a real word or did I just make it up? I’m leaving it anyway because I like it. It sounds like hippopotamus (and also, rather appropriately, like Dionysos!) Now I want a hippopotamus friend who I could name Dichotomous! Hello! I’m Dichotomous the hippopotamus. I like mud. And also a lovely clean bed with white linen and one of those glade air freshener things to scent the room so all is just so… and MUD… ahem..

Err, what was I saying?…   Dionysos observes and understands his prey.  There was a wonderful moment where Dionysos watches Pentheus’ response to a situation and without having to say anything you see his glee that Pentheus does precisely as Dionysos wishes. He plays with Pentheus and utterly delights in his own effect. He is a God and humans are puppets to him. When Pentheus goes against him, Dionysos doesn’t want revenge, he wants first to bring Pentheus to worship him and then to punish him. He turns out to be utterly inhuman: terrifying & callous. Or perhaps, as is alluded to at the end, his cruelty is too human for a God?! Anyway, you eventually discover you definitely do not wish to follow Dionysos up a mountain, no no no. Whishaw also plays two other roles effectively and very differently (well three if you include Dionysos appearing in pure form as well.)

As wonderful as Whishaw is, for me Bertie Carvel is the most impressive here and it is from him I really felt the play. The nature of Dionysos is that he is a God and as such he is unchanging and will bend to no-one’s will. Dionysos does not alter. It is the point.


On the other hand, Bertie Carvel plays:

  • A man in terms of who he is in an intellectual sense and how he presents himself to the world
  • This same man, but now who he is deep inside – his true vulnerabilities and desires
  • This same man’s Mother, but completely crazed and under control of a God
  • The Mother, still not in her own mind, yet now not crazed, more hypnotized
  • The Mother, returned to herself

Before you even get into emotional shifts, to witness the subtle alterations along these journeys which lead us to understand something of the complex natures of these two characters is really quite something.   I found Bertie revelatory in the way (and extent) to which he changed during the course of the play and he achieves this with really not that long a time spent in any one state. I don’t even know what to say about it. It is just impressive and powerful acting.

Pentheus and Dionysos have in common their desire for power and, ultimately, control, but initially Pentheus is fusty and irritating as a politician. All he wants is to stop all the fun by putting everyone (even his own Mother) in jail and indeed have them all submit to his own will. There is of course a sense in which Pentheus is correct, as it turns out people are not worshipping Dionysos as much as they are his puppets, yet Pentheus opposes not to help anyone, but for his own selfish reasons. But he becomes Dionysos’ plaything and Pentheus’ deeper self is drawn from him. Suddenly, this controlled man in his buttoned up suit begins to unravel at the will of Dionysos. We (and he) begin to witness his desires, his abandon, his chaos. He is even physically exposed as he’s dressed in women’s attire at the same time as he accesses this deeper self. The sheer vulnerability of this revelation of Pentheus’ self, coupled with the fact that Pentheus is clearly now totally on board the worship-Dionysos bus and dinging the bus-bell makes Pentheus if not sympathetic then at least you empathise with and pity him. And thus you have a character you now feel sorry for, as you would any human. Bertie makes Pentheus, who remains a pathetic character, tragic. You are sorry for his fate and you pity his flaws and feel for his self-discovery. He reveals the core of the man. This all also serves to make Dionysos’ actions feel all the more brutal.

All this and it is really as Agave that I think Bertie is most impressive. From crazed, through hypnotised to painful grief: a character so brief in terms of time in the play and not even herself for much of her play-time is perhaps biggest in terms of direct emotional impact? Agave, when not crazed is very calm. Bertie creates a character who expresses sorrow quietly and, for the most part in a contained way. It is left to the chorus (who I’ll talk more of in a bit) to sonically express the deeper wail of the entire play’s tragedy. Agave is the character who brings resolution really to what the play is about.  Without her, Bakkhai is chilling, but through her I felt the pain and sadness in the play.

With these two characters I feel that Mr Carvel really let’s you in to deep, sometimes hard to watch aspects of who these beings are and it just really is something to experience.  As a side note, Bertie hit me right on the big toe when Pentheus threw away his shades. I don’t think you could’ve made that good an aim if you’d tried. Unless it was an aim. What did I do wrong? Haha. Anyway, beside the point.


On to the chorus! You’ve probably gathered from my surprise at the plot that I know nothing of the Greeks. I know a bit about music though and as such wish to say that musically I love the chorus. Artistically it is beautiful and evocative and I feel would make a lovely concert on its own.  The score is complex (more complex than I have ever heard in a play by miles) and I feel (from the little I know) its mix of influences suits.  It is also very demanding of the actresses/singers who perform it – much solo, dissonant counterpoint, singing versus speaking and at times it even wails and yelps and cries.  As music in its own right I think it is quite remarkable: impressive and powerful… but the relevance of it to and how well it works in the play is sort of beside the point to this I think?

So, in terms of the play, the music is dark, atmospheric and since Dionysos never directly acts (until the end when he appears as his true self) as though he is cruel, the Bakkhai are also how we get to feel how truly horrific Dionysos is. Their singular voice, thought and purpose is unnerving. Their abandon is clearly not free or fun & they are not supporters of this God, but tools, eventually painting their faces as warriors or beasts. Initially, the Bakkhai are utterly mesmerising. They look the audience in the eye and you feel and fear their conviction. They are powerful. If you can drag your eyes from the actors, sometimes when a character is talking about something Dionysos has achieved, you can also see the emotion in their faces and they react with the exact same feeling Dionysos himself would have to news. The only thing I did find was that as the play goes on, it takes a great deal of effort to concentrate and listen/hear every word they say. I think it was me having so much to think about in terms of the drama. But they remain chilling, powerful, atmospheric and expressive.

This bit might be silliness. But I even found Bakkhai pertinent to now with a God who in his demands for complete supplication creates the worst potential religion has: the ability to remove people from their self and to manipulate or coerce them into, well, into pretty much anything in the name of something they believe in. Is it just me living in nowadays makes that connection?

I don’t think the play is flawless. The worst aspect to me is that there are quite a few moments when some character or other has to do a large amount of explaining/narrative telling. I think generally in a play it is better to see and feel. When you end up with a character narrating a long passage, which has nothing to do with their personal feeling-based experience but is in order to get plot out, I feel like I could have just read this. It seems a bit of a waste of actors’ abilities. And again you have to really concentrate when it is just one person narrating a large story. A lot of this thankless narration falls to the third actor, Kevin Harvey who I haven’t mentioned, but who is very good as Kadmos in particular. Ben Whishaw also has to do a fair bit of narration. He narrates, as a character we only see in this one scene the great tragedy of the piece. I understand why it couldn’t be shown, but I sort of feel like there could have been some way to show us something of it rather than just have one character who we have no connection to as we don’t see him other than this scene tell us it all..?

On this note, can I just point out that the Almeida Theatre do the best programmes. The programme for this play is more like a mini encyclopedia. I haven’t had chance to even read it all yet but if you go see the play, whereas in most instances you’ll pay £4 for essentially a book of adverts and a cast list, here there is so much and so interesting information. So much information in fact that though it is necessary for the play to have Dionysos narrate his own history for the audience for those of us (like me!) who don’t know their Greeks at all, in fact, I didn’t need him to as I’d already read it in the programme thus knew it. If they just forced every audience member to sit down and read the programme for 15 minutes before the play they could have fitted in more drama and would’ve required less exposition!  Do your homework and now you may watch the play! I’m sure that’ll catch on. I probably should have finished reading said programme before writing this, eh. Oh well.

So, to sum up, this play is made-me-shaky-intense and I found it powerful, I think particularly so given that with the chorus who are as important as the actors, the fact that all 3 main men play multiple roles and the play is only two hours, no character gets a massive role.

* I feel I should give a disclaimer that I go into some plays knowing nothing or little of the actors, but I have been a fan of Ben Whishaw’s work for years and I loved Bertie Carvel in the recent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I found so totally wonderful I am now reading the novel. And subsequently I realised other things I’d seen him in, all of which had been so different I’d have had no thought of it being the same actor even.  But you know, I would like to think Dionysos has not brainwashed me and I am still able to form my own, comparatively objective opinions!….?

+ Dionysos proffers a world which is supposedly free, wild and chaotic, full of all anyone desires. In truth though, he has tight control on the experiences, thoughts and indeed selves of every one of his followers. Have you seen the play? Or do you know the story anyway? I’m not sure if this is supposed to have some kind of a message and if so what? Talk to me! What did you think of the play? Tell me how you felt. Disagree with some daft things I said! Answer this… what was supposed to be a statement but turned into just words… whatever! I’m curious.

And if you haven’t seen the play yet but are going to, I hope you also get silly-words-amounts of thought out of it!

If you made it this far it is a veritable miracle!  Your reward is the knowledge that Bakkhai runs ’til 19th September and more tickets are released tomorrow I think.  You can buy them here.  Though I probably wrote so much you feel like you don’t even need to watch it now, oops.

Images added 02/08/15.  All photos by Marc Brenner:


2 Responses to “Bakkhai: Almeida Theatre, Friday 24th July 2015 *”

  1. […] it was over a week ago that I saw it, and wrote my rambling thoughts here, but I also had a question about Bakkhai, or at least a theme I thought would be interesting to […]

  2. […] My initial thoughts on Bakkhai are here: […]

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