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Immersive, seductive, orgasmic: review of The Bacchae

Inhale, exhale. The beating drum sounds louder as I walk further into the Keble O’Reilly. Turning left into the auditorium, I find the source of the entrancing rhythm. An interlacing circle of maenads obstructs the path to my seat: they pant to Dionysus’ drumming and their presence onstage makes me wonder if I’ve accidentally turned up late. 

Euripides’ The Bacchae follows the descent of Dionysus (Wally McCabe) upon the city of Thebes, where they have already seduced a band of women into following them away into the hills. There, it’s orgies-galore, much to the disdain of Pentheus (Immanuel Smith). The play follows Pentheus’ denial of Dionysus’ divine – albeit indulgent – authority and the reassertion of power in a gruesome conclusion. 

The intimate and stripped-back set design worked well and, paired with the O’Reilly’s in-the-round seating, created an immersive atmosphere of ecstasy. Actors entered from all sides, joining and leaving the audience, even peering over into the theatre from the balconies at points, creating multiple layers of spectacle and rendering us as part of Dionysus’ divine dance. The sense of bacchic frenzy was furthermore augmented by the actors’ lack of restraint from forcing us in the front row to tuck our legs away as they sashayed, rolled, and gesticulated across the stage. 

McCabe’s performance as Dionysus was seductive – creating chemistry with both actor and audience through dialogue and soliloquy – and swung successfully from sensuality to vainglorious rage as the plot demanded. At times bare-chested and always booted up in platform Doc Martens, watching basically every character in the play swoon at Dionysus’ every glance and, quite literally, dance to the beat of their drum, was really quite titillating.

The more minor character of Tiresias (Susie Weidmann) was performed and costumed excellently – Weidmann’s rod-wielding was more Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess than Ian McKellen as Gandalf, and it was hilarious. The late entry of Agave (Alice Wyles) into the play bore no weight on Wyles’ ability to evoke emotion: hers was another standout performance.

Although props were sparse, some effective choices were made. The severed head raised aloft at the play’s conclusion was chillingly well-constructed, but its effect was slightly undermined by the squeaking of styrofoam in what was supposed to have been a bag of mangled body parts.

Director Freyja Harrison-Wood succeeds with The Bacchae in curating a play which balances physical performance and tantric scene-building with well-paced plot advancement. Any qualms about its experimentality were offset by well-delivered performances. The result is intriguing and, yes, orgasmic. 

The Bacchae will continue its run at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday, 3rd February. Tickets for the play are on sale here.

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