Thoughts on second view of Bakkhai:

August 30, 2015

This piece of writing is really for me.  I can’t think who else it’d interest.  But I may want to read it again, so… what it certainly is not is a review of Bakkhai.  It is merely random thoughts!  I am sure, mostly daft as hoover-shoes (though they’re not really daft.  I want some.  Daft as hoover-ears then.)

Though I loved it on first watch, those things that I didn’t find quite perfect were no longer an issue for me now. I think first off I should say I barely mentioned Kevin Harvey the first time I saw the play and it wasn’t that he wasn’t good, just that Ben & Bertie were so electric. This time, Kadmos felt a more important role, with Kevin Harvey playing an old man really convincingly and bringing a gravitas to the old King, bringing his personal tragedy to my mind more in the play.  Last time I mentioned how none of the characters are really good, but Kadmos really is good.  The God’s wrath is devastating no matter who it is meted out to & you don’t only have empathy for the nice folks, but I still feel it is worth saying that Kadmos seems like a good ‘un.

The play is shorter now. I don’t know what they did, but it is shorter and though I am usually an advocate of a good thing never being too long, I think it works better for it. The biggest thing that worked better for me was those monologues: all the times when often a random character has to come on and narrate swathes of plot, I didn’t feel it was ideal the first time I saw the play (though neither did I know this was a thing in Greek tragedy in general.) But this time, I found Ben Whishaw in particular a great deal more moving narrating Pentheus’ demise. He was wonderful as Dionysus first time I saw Bakkhai, but as this messenger, affected me much more this time.  I would say, though great last time, his performances as those other than his main Dionysos felt deeper to me now.

Overall, somehow the play at certain points felt really different to me! To the extent I thought “Are they definitely saying the same words they did last time?!” I don’t know whether it was just that it had been a month and I’d forgotten, or if it was the changes since previews or the audience’s atmosphere… or was something actually different?!  Well, something must have been different as it is shorter, but something more??

Talking of atmosphere, this is properly a dark play… however while there was some humour in it the first time I saw it, it sort of felt incidental and maybe even a tad out of place at times. This time, there was a lot of humour and it really worked and there were a lot of laughs from the audience who were really responsive to the wit. Bertie Carvel even played with the audience response (At one point in the play, Dionysos is convincing Pentheus to don a dress to spy on the maenads and Pentheus says something along the lines of “The most important thing is that no-one laughs at me.” (I’m so lazy – I have the play text and can’t even be bothered to check the actual line…) It got a titter from the audience but one lady did an extra big laugh after everyone else, and Pentheus looked right at her – of course – this is just what Pentheus is fearing! With his glare, the whole audience then laughed mightily. I think when an actor can work with what the audience at that performance gives it can make for something electric… especially as an audience member if you’ve seen the play more than once. If you see a play more than once it is always as you loved it… but at the same time, I find it (for those few plays I’ve seen more than once) rather disappointing if the play is just exactly the same as it was when you saw it before…)  That was an odd digression.  At the same time, I suppose this is indicative of the fact that the audience can have a huge influence on how a play is on the night: their response can effect the mood of at least some of the play…  Curious.  I think that works well for any audience though – those watching for the first time too.  If the audience’s energy is positive and those on the stage can use that in the play it is surely only going to make what there already is even better?!

I think it is quite impressive that a play so dark manages to contain a large amount of humour while at the same time always being serious… and though there have been so many laughs throughout the play, when Bertie Carvel’s Agave in wild abandon enters the stage, no one is laughing. I have no idea how it is achieved – this time I saw it, it really was very funny for much of the time (clearly not by the end) but at the same time, no character was ever comic – all the characters were always deadly serious. You laugh at double meanings and implications and Pentheus’ laughable pomposity and arrogance and the way you see how Dionysus is playing with Pentheus…  But it always remains simultaneously serious.

I felt sorrow for Agave the first time I saw the play and found her sorrow very hard to watch. This time, on top of that sorrow which feels bitingly real and true and even… I don’t know: awkward, you know – as grief is.  On top of this, Agave’s resignation troubled me. After her initial sorrow, she again becomes still, calm and contained. She does not continue to sob forever more. What’s done is done. She has killed her own child. What worse could a Mother do. How can she continue?  I was left thinking about this for a long time afterwards.  It carries on the awful events into an awful future too.  Pleasant pondering.

I noticed it first time but I did again this time. I can only speak for Ben Whishaw here. There is a part of the play where from the position I was sat (both times – I was in a similar location but further back second time) I couldn’t see the faces of the actors who were talking at the time and Dionysus is on stage but not speaking. As he is the only actor/character whose face I could see, it was him I watched. He is sat on the stage and he just watches Pentheus. In fact there is an image of it:

Ben-Whishaw-in-Bakkhai.-Almeida-Theatre.-Credit-Marc-Brenner_2

A messenger is telling Pentheus about the maenads. And on Dionysus’ face you can see completely how he feels about what is going on here. He watches Pentheus’ response to the messenger’s words and a slight smile plays at his lips as Pentheus (presumably – I could only see Bertie Carvel’s back… which itself was fairly expressive….) responds as Dionysus has planned and hoped for. It is amazing to watch. Great actors, they don’t even need words.

Afterwards I was thinking I felt that Bakkhai was terrifying not only as its God is so cruel but as Dionysos first offers then takes away what is most important from every human. I mean essentially it is maybe all one & the same too: Dionysos first offers freedom, then takes it away entirely & irrevocably. Someone pointed out to me that from the outset Dionysus doesn’t offer freedom but demands complete submission and that is true. Yet he sets himself up as a God where if you follow him, you will be liberated – you’ll dance, have wine, have sex, you won’t be oppressed. So I think he does seem to offer freedom, chaos, liberation, wild abandon. And the ladies Dionysus first casts his spell upon, they were surely oppressed. Though he does “drive them mad’ you can imagine they’d willingly follow him (who wouldn’t – the God at the outset of he play?!) and then Dionysus takes away all self agency from the women. They have no individual thought: they no longer have even their own minds. Their actions are Dionysus’ thoughts made real. They are his puppets. At the same time it is confusing because Dionysos does say right at the start what he is going to do.  He is the God of opposites after all so I suppose no wonder that I should feel confused that he seems to at the same time preach abandon and demand utter control to the extent that his followers speak with his voice…

Dionysos opens Pentheus up, liberating a deeper part of him to himself. And maybe he offers control in the sense of spying on the Bakkhai. It is not that Pentheus is nicer by the end of Bakkhai, but that he’s vulnerable, human, pitiable, exposed & already brought to Dionysos. There’s no need for the God to kill him, but the most inhuman cruelty. Pentheus is in Dionysus’ thrall already. He’ll do whatever Dioysus wishes.  (Though again, only this time did I not Dionysos addled Pentheus’ mind a tad too in order to get him into that dress…) Dionysus also allows Pentheus to realise his death before it comes – At the hands of his Mother no less. A Mother who neither recognises or hears her own son & literally tears him to pieces. Pentheus’ end is not only physically but emotionally brutal. Dionysos draws Pentheus to him then both he & his Mother kill him.

As I said above, what could be worse for a Mother than to kill her own son in the most brutal way imaginable. Agave thinks her actions will make her family proud.  She thinks she has killed a mountain lion cub. How can she live once returned to herself with what she has done? It isn’t just sorrow Agave is left with, Dionysos takes away who she is. She can’t recover her son or herself & must resign to that. I wonder how it feels to play? Do the Bakkhai ladies feel disempowered as well as empowered (clearly what they do is powerful, but inside, they aren’t even individuals. They are completely Dionysos’ puppets.  What does it feel like to play someone so truly callous as Dionysos? Though he’s playful, clever & much more with it too.  Does it feel as vulnerable to play a person baring, revealing & discovering themselves as it does to watch with Pentheus & Agave?  So, I wonder.

I noticed the light more this time too.  Other people have compared it to the sun, moving across the stage as the production goes on and a surgical light, examining the goings on on the stage. I suppose it could be both.  To me it also feels connected to the Gods: the Bakkhai look to it and it heralds Dionysos.  I also noticed that it shines towards the stage at the start of the play, directly down on the stage during the climax and it ends the play at the back of the stage, pointing to some degree… towards us.  Perhaps we ought to reflect upon ourselves too?

And the end.  Well initially, I found it chilling, terrifying.  Dionysos is terrifying.  It is a play that asks rather than answers questions.  But this play is a play wherein those who displease the God are shown no mercy.  So, should they have followed the God all along?  Or is it that the God is wrong.  Because it feels like it is saying the God is wrong (since clearly his actions are!  No matter how terrible any human was his actions would be!  And he hasn’t only damaged those who wronged him.)  Yet at the same time there’s another side there too.  It is disturbing, troubling…

I wonder how Bakkhai was supposed to feel to an audience so long ago? To me it feels a warning about Gods who can strip you of your self, but I see it from my perspective, living nowadays with a totally different idea of religion, Gods, society & even myself than then.

My initial thoughts on Bakkhai are here: https://wherewordsend.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/bakkhai-almeida-theatre-friday-24th-july-2015/

It should probably be noted that that was a preview performance and things have changed since then.  Bakkhai runs ’til 19th September 2015.

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