Theatre Review: The Bacchae

York Dramasoc takes on a hugely challenging text this week with Greek tragedy The Bacchae. finds out how they managed it

Sebastian Romaniuk in The Bacchae. Photo Credit: Katherine Johnston

An ancient Greek tragedy, dating back nearly 2500 years; Euripides’ play, translated by Gilbert Murray, tells the tale of vengeance, ego and destruction. Following the God Dionysus, his course of revenge slowly evolves to gruesome ends. Dionysus, come to earth to prove his divinity and to clear his dead mother’s name from slander, attaches new hate towards the young King Pentheus. Dionysus’ hatred of Pentheus and the eventual result raises the question, what is the moral of the story? Does the plot portray the injustice in the Greek God’s actions and pose the question of the inadequacy of the religion? Or, on the other hand, is it designed as a dire warning to follow these Gods in full devotion? Whichever the case, in this play it’s clear: Don’t mess with the gods.

Choosing to divide the role of Dionysus into two characters, Sebastian Romaniuk and Scarlett Wood remained on stage for most of the action; omniscient over the remaining characters. Mostly alternating paragraphs of monologues, they occasionally spoke as one, and frequently mirrored each other’s actions on stage. The significance of choosing this role partition was at times unclear; did they represent different elements of Dionysus? The text did not particularly allow for this. They portrayed similar, but unidentical elements of the God. Perhaps the most effective outcome was the visual impression from this role division. Like a Greek Chorus, many coming together to form one individual, Dionysus stood out as God because of the illusion of duality. Perhaps this was also a hint to the hypocrisy of Dionysus’ nature. The Bacchae and the devout men describe him as joyous; he is the God of wine and religious ecstasy and fertility in Greek religion. Yet, he appears as an increasingly vengeful and manipulative figure in the play: the two faces of Bacchus.

Like a Greek Chorus, many coming together to form one individual, Dionysus stood out as God because of the illusion of duality.

The actors taking on the unusual challenge of dividing this role did well. Sebastian Romaniuk was eerie and calculated, every move purposeful and controlled. Scarlett Wood was more reserved and patient than her partner, perhaps the less impulsive of the two sides. Most often seated on a throne with ivy and sheep skulls adorning their heads, the set-up was thoroughly chilling. Sebastian Romaniuk seemed to consistently initiate action, setting him as the slightly more dominant side of the character. This was emphasised by his position on the throne during most of the action; Scarlett Wood stood behind the chair, indicating a marginally lower status than her male counterpoint. Both holding masks with a blood-stained hand-print, these props were at times a better in conception than in practice. The audience was left slightly confused as to the significance of the masks. Did these represent the face of the God; the actors’ faces being their human masks? At times, these were used to great effect, the Godly pair pouring great attention to manipulating and caressing these masks. Yet, this was not enough to mask the inconsistencies of intent. At times, the cast directed their speech to these props, but speech would also be delivered to the faces of the actors holding the masks without a clear or consistent parallel to be drawn.

A difficult piece to tackle, in regards to the text, syntax, characterisation and staging; this was an ambitious project for the team, especially with performances falling relatively early in the term. The cast and crew did well to manage such a task. As an example of historic writing, the extensive monologues do not cater to the usual tastes or experiences of modern-day theatregoers and can easily fall flat. The energy was kept high, and the addition of some improvised outdoor theatre by Kendra Rabbitts and Michael Maitland-Jones during the interval was a nice touch. The set was minimal, only containing a sheet with a painted emblem, a chair, and a table, leaving a large space for a small number of performers. The sheet and the white dress of characters were used to good effect in the second half yet, certain elements of the performance could have been developed further. For instance, the often full-flood lighting upon the relatively bare stage was a little raw at times and could have been refined to exaggerate some of the wonderful directional choices and performances.

Andreane Rellou in The Bacchae. Photo Credit: Katherine Johnston

Leo Jarvis as Pentheus was a well-chosen contrast to Dionysus. As a young man who has become King, his flawed human nature, uncertainty and frustration were absent elements from the God Dionysus; these traits were all the more endearing as a result. The audience could not help but sympathise with this man receiving the wrath of Dionysus and began to question if Dionysus should have the right to inflict such a punishment. Leo Jarvis’s naturalism in the face of heightened personalities was admirable and allowed moments of equal humour and horror to seamlessly intertwine and overlap.

The chorus consisted of Filippo Del Bo, Andreane Rellou and Astrid Melin-Shearer, who were energised and smooth with their delivery.

The chorus consisted of Filippo Del Bo, Andreane Rellou and Astrid Melin-Shearer, who were energised and smooth with their delivery. The coordination of the chorus as an individual was impressive, particularly during the scenes leading to Pentheus’ demise. Rellou and Melin-Shearer performed a flawless dialogue in which the rhythm was captivating. This section also used poles as percussive and ritualistic elements, more convincingly here than at the start of the play where there was some hesitancy. At times, chorus speech was not completely coordinated, yet this was only the case when coordination was required between actors on and off-stage; a task nearly impossible without the visual cues of breathing and in the face of music which sometimes dominated the auditory field.

The horrible fate of Agave, chillingly played by Eleanor Drinkwater, resulted in hesitant laughter from the audience which slowly descended to a serious silence. Elements of gore in the play were all rather humorous, yet were tempered by the realism of the actors in their sorrow or satisfaction. The bloodstained woman, confused, bewitched and then arguably betrayed by her God. As the play came to a close, blood continued to drip down the canvas and many elements are seemingly unresolved. How do Agave, Kadmos and the rest of the community react to the events which have occurred?

The Bacchae toils with many fantastical and mythological elements which require careful consideration to resolve; this show would have benefitted from a more consistent set of rules regarding the treatment of props and staging in order to clearly convey the dramatic intent. Nevertheless, this was a well-performed play with many particularly good elements. The experimentation of two bodies playing Dionysus and the inclusion of gender-blind casting only two elements of many which made this an exciting and original production of this work.


7/10

The Bacchae continues in The Drama Barn until Sunday evening. For more information and to book tickets visit York Dramasoc’s website.

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