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Ben Whishaw’s gender-bending god impresses in this eccentric tragedy
After the chilling perfection of June’s ‘Oresteia’, the Almeida’s Greeks season capers into stranger territory with an idiosyncratic production of Euripides’s brutal ‘Bakkhai’. Two very big stars – Ben Whishaw and Bertie Carvel – anchor a night that is frequently electrifyingly disconcerting. But ultimately it’s the all-female, all-singing chorus that define James MacDonald’s production of Anne Carson’s blackly comic adaptation, and not always in a good way.
What the chorus does really well is frame this two-and-half-millennia-old play as being less about the capriciousness of gods, more the fragility of gender. With only three male actors (Carvel and Whishaw are joined by Kevin Harvey), the ten-strong chorus – representing Maenads, or female worshippers of the god Dionysus – are a constant, louring presence, a reminder that male-run norms have been abandoned in the realm of Dionysus, Greek god of pleasure.
And the most potent symbol of gender breakdown is Whishaw’s extraordinary, androgynous Dionysus. With waist-length hair and a full gown that he wears with a strange, sexless sensuality, he is the anti-alpha male, yet speaks with a terrifying assurance and command. He is a god – or ‘daemon’, as he puts it – with godlike powers, yet onstage his potency seems to come from the fact that he is a man unburdened by any of the rules of masculinity.
Carson doesn’t make much hay out of his rivalry with Pentheus, the human ruler who refuses to acknowledge Dionysus’s divinity, because Carvel’s Pentheus never stands a chance. The human’s blustering façade cracks into a shy smile the second that his nemesis Dionysus suggests he disguise as a woman in order to go and observe the Maenads. And while Pentheus dies shortly thereafter, Carvel’s journey doesn’t end there: he reappears in full, filthy drag as Pentheus’s wild mother Agave. It is an absurd and intoxicating performance – in a way the show seems to be more about the journey of Carvel than Pentheus.
It might have been an extraordinary two-hander. But the action more or less grinds to a halt whenever it’s the chorus’s turn, singing their observations in lavish harmonies that are technically impressive, but ultimately tiresomely so. The lack of rough edges are at odds with the Maenads’ wildness, and the chorus section feel generally at odds with the rest of the show.
There are a couple of well-judged sections when they’re actually integrated into the action but for the most part they feel like an imposition. Throw in a bit of slightly weird character doubling for Whishaw, and this in many ways remarkable production feels undermined by an awkwardness at odds with its searing visions of abandon.