The Almeida Greeks season reached a high at the weekend with a star-studded reading of Homer’s 15-hour epic, The Iliad, while the theatre also continued to play host to 90 minutes of tragedy and revenge with Euripides’Bakkhai.
There’s a lot to recommend Bakkhai, primarily three fine central performances from Ben Whishaw as the avenging god, Dionysus, Bertie Carvel as the be-suited, conservative politician and leader Pentheus and Kevin Harvey as, among others, the old seer Tiresias.
But James Macdonald’s production is disappointingly tame. The story seems to have lost its rawness and potency in Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides’ posthumously presented last play.
The Bakkhai themselves are seen as a dreary bunch of eco laurel-wearing hippies whose reputed bacchanalian orgies, slaughterous behaviour and frenzied fervour has been replaced by trance-like lethargy and light opera.
And, while the occasional burst of song is entirely in keeping with the role of the chorus in the play, their almost entirely-sung performance interrupts, dominates and overwhelms the acutely well-acted core story.
Whishaw’s Jesus-like celestial being, the unstable god of theatre, music, wine and madness, is both magnetic and eccentric and contrasts well with his nemesis, Carvel’s rather sober and unsmiling Pentheus.
This unshaven Dionysus flicks his long hair (a bit of a Russell Brand look going on) and occasionally pouts or bites his lip with the petulance of an annoyed teenager who can’t get his own way (Brand again).
But an upset and aggrieved god (of indeterminate sex), who seems to have inherited the very worst traits from his masculine, feminine and divine sides, isn’t a happy bunny – as poor Pentheus learns to his cost.
The politician, King of Thebes, and his mother Agave, made the mistake of belittling Dionysus and refusing to acknowledge his God-like status.
It is a folly which sets in motion a terrible tragedy that begins with Agave and the womenfolk being enchanted and fleeing to the forest where, in a cult-like euphoria, they turn savage and uncontrollable.
Pentheus, desperate to know what they are doing, dresses in drag (actually a rather smart-looking Chanel-style suit) and enters their camp with predictable, though fairly unbloody, results.
Bertie Carvel calls on his previous roles as Nick Clegg and his frock-wearing days as Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull for his performance. He gives a knockout turn as both Pentheus and Agave.
His reserved and subdued king, an unemotional leader of state, is the antithesis of the hot-headed Dionysus.
In a familiar-sounding story he refuses to believe that his young cousin, a cocky, tempestuous long-haired, bearded boy in a frock, who offers himself up to him, is a religious or divine leader.
Later, you wonder if the king isn’t a closet gay as he throws himself, with ever more abandon, into transforming himself into a woman.
But Carvel’s intense and poignant final scenes, as mist falls from the eyes of a blood-soaked Agave, are heartbreaking and full of emotion.
Bakkhai plays at the Almeida until September 19.
Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel face up to each other in Euripides’ Bakkhai, a tale of tragedy and revenge, being played out on stage at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, the second major production in its Almeida Greeks season.