You might well be justified in asking what better theatrical treat there could be than a bit of Greek tragedy in the form of a new translation of Euripides’ Bacchae. The inevitable answer is a bit of Greek tragedy (indeed, almost tragi-comedy since the tragic and the hilarious are knitted together so seamlessly) showcased to its real advantage in New College’s beautiful gardens.
New translation I hear you question- surely not another tiresome adaptation to a “modern day context”? No, David Raeburn’s translation is utterly faithful to the spirit of the original and achieves a timeless idiom. The tragic is indeed harrowing – Dionysus, enraged at having his divinity denied by the Thebans, including their ruthless king, decides to send the women mad (as you do…), including the king Pentheus’ mother Agave, who ends up ripping her son’s head off thinking he is a wild beast. On the other hand, the script’s moods are multiple, having its fair share of double entendre and comic interchange, notably at the start between the two old men Tiresias and Cadmus, both of whom have a decidedly surreal appearance – tailored suits, draped with a gigantic goatskin, and the suspect attachment of a “beard”.
The acting is very energetic across the board and there is nice interplay between the resounding, declamatory styles of Dionysus and Pentheus, and the chanting of the female chorus, who approximate the rhythms of Greek verse, mysterious to the English ear, and are accompanied by the boom of drum and tambourine. Henry Ashwell gives a confident, dominating presence to Dionysius, god of pleasure, while Henry Hudson’s tense delivery as the sober Pentheus really shapes the conflict between the two; Hudson plays Pentheus’ later “transformation” into a woman, as Dionysus’ ultimate humiliation, to its zesty upmost. The impressive choreography of a very mobile chorus gave increased vitality to this conflict. The ripping into pieces of the body is thankfully for Hudson left offstage, and afforded quite a different dynamic in mournful understatement by a messenger (Alex Chance); the intensity is picked up again by Poppy Rimington-Pounder as an emotive Agave, realising that the head she bears is not a lion’s but her son’s. The problem here though is that the mother is not a palpable presence in the script until this point, so although sympathy with her horror at her atrocity is inevitable, we are left a little perplexed at the degree of Dionysus’ Agave-directed hatred. Maybe, we just have to call it divine cruelty and have done with it. Or otherwise, see it as condemnation of the animal instinct that whips Thebes into orgiastic frenzy.
On the whole, this is an engaging realisation of a play that speaks evocatively to us through the mists (or as a more appropriate Bacchean analogy: the winy fragrance) of time.