Each time Dionysos appears on stage in the Almeida Theatre’s new production of the Bakkhai there is a crackle of electricity. A dangerous flash and fizz of escaped current that threatens to shock the nearest heathen into adoration.
Ben Whishaw is the ethereal Dionysos, who states in his opening address “I intend to thrill you, Thebes.” Fresh off the boat, his mission is to convert Greece to his own brand of ecstatic worship just like he converted Asia before them.
The only man that stands in his way is Pentheus, Thebes’ intolerant ruler. Played by Bertie Carvel with conservative restraint, Pentheus displays all of the ignorance and disregard of contemporary politicians in wanting to put down “this Bakkhic nonsense” with the minimum of fuss.
But he doesn’t know what he is dealing with, and rapidly becomes the victim of his own gnawing curiosity.
In keeping with the tradition of 400 BCE, three actors alternate through the main character roles, whilst a ten-strong female chorus support, cajole and critique their decisions in song, chant and lamentation.
Anne Carson’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic text is clean, accessible and totally honest. Where there is no English translation for the original Greek, the character declares it.
Dionysos admits he is known by a different name in every land he has conquered thus far, his mercurial essence impossible to capture definitively within the confines of language.
In performance, the simplicity of Carson’s text has the power to both articulate huge emotions and sensations and equally be thrown away.
Both Whishaw and Carvel play on the sarcasm and informality that characterises so much of contemporary conversation, Whishaw using language to wield great authority and depict puckish giddiness, to torment and to tease.
Because the language is so plain, the audience tunes in on any glimmer of a double meaning. When Pentheus appeals to us – his courtiers – to support him in maintaining order in the land he governs, we giggle at his double entendres.
Just as Dionysus would have us do, we corrupt his words for our own pleasure and turn all to sex.
Pentheus condemns us for disobeying him, but as an audience of voyeurs we are already followers of Dionysos – vocal adherents of wine, ritual and song.
The quiet control of the performances, the constant rhythm and the coldness of the lighting are what lend this production its eerie atmosphere.
The Bakkhai themselves, instead of presenting their ecstasy and devotions through chaos, are uncannily still.
Instilled with a deep sense of peace and joy, they show us what the satisfaction of true worship might look like. They positively glow with the smugness of the brainwashed, gleaming with evangelical self-satisfaction.
As well as producing new productions of three major tragedies the theatre is presenting an extensive series of discussions, debates and readings interrogating the influence of Greeks on contemporary life.
The Greek season at the Almeida promises to be impressively comprehensive. And Bakkhai is its magnificently sinister and supernatural centrepiece.
Bakkhai is at the Almeida until 19 September.