Wednesday, 5 August 2015
THEATRE | BAKKHAI STARRING BEN WHISHAW
Yes that is Ben Whishaw standing next to me, not Jesus. Though I wouldn't blame you for thinking otherwise as I had to do a double take when I first saw him.
"The hair looks nice." I commented, in a poor attempt to tease him. To which he replied, "It's a wig..."
Apparently I don't portray sarcasm very effectively because of course I knew it was a wig. What miracle would enable a person's hair to triple in length in a short couple of months? I'd be all over that invention. Anyway the wig belongs to Dionysus, Greek god of wine and ecstasy. Ben's return to theatre after Mojo sees him take on the lead role in Bakkhai, a new version of Europides' ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae. Currently playing at the Almeida Theatre in London as part of their Greeks season, I managed to beat the mad rush for tickets (website crashed practically a minute after they went on sale) and secure seats for one of the first preview nights.
Previously unfamiliar with the Greek mythology, it was to my advantage that the play opens with a prologue, a brief introduction of sorts by Dionysus himself, explaining that he is the son of Zeus and that this is his human form. Right from the get go, there is something ethereal and other-wordly about Ben's Dionysus. Even clad in jeans and converse, human is one of the last things to come to mind. Every syllable he enunciates, every movement is done with a subtle, seductive swagger. I find that I am drawn to every breath, could the same be said for the rest of the captivated audience?
The female chorus is initially impressive as the Bacchae, Dionysus' followers. Swathed in perfectly torn and disarrayed rags and crowns of foliage, they alternate between singing acapella and speaking in unison. They worship Dionysus and his wild, instinctive and sensual ways, together with him they oppose Pentheus, king of Thebes (played by Bertie Carvel), who is strict, rational, and orderly, basically the straight up opposite of Dionysus. First appearing in a suit, Pentheus asserts a masculine, authoritative figure that contrasts nicely against Dionysus who is now in a dress similar to that of the Bacchae. He tries to imprison Dionysus, stubbornly repeating that he does not believe in gods or magic. The stand off between them is probably the highlight of the play for me, the androgynous Dionysus is mesmerising and manipulative without being overly assertive and he ends up successfully luring the curious Pentheus into a trap.
Although their voices are undoubtedly beautiful, I found myself progressively growing wearier during each choral interlude which in my opinion was way too long and consequently destroyed the flow and atmosphere of the play. Between them, the scenes are charged and full of magnificent power. Brief flashes of comedy cut sharply through moments so intense, you realise you'd been holding your breath the entire time. Bertie Carvel does not once fall under Whishaw's shadow, his performance matches his co-star's every step of the way and the final scenes are especially a delight to behold. The third actor, Kevin Harvey, is also impressive, embodying a Morgan Freeman-esque voice of wisdom that pulls us out of the fantasy trance Dionysus has us in but in turn warns us not to become like Pentheus. As the gods in this story seem to represent different aspects of human nature, it ultimately makes us question our condition. Ben Whishaw is indescribably amazing in this role, very different to anything I've seen him do yet he nails Dionysus right on his long-haired head. There's no point in denying I initially wanted to see Bakkhai because he was in it, he's one of my favourite actors but his work, this play, successfully continues to propel him forward as one of the greatest actors of our generation.
Official production images by Marc Brenner, all others are my own.