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A. Mackenzie Archive

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Dirty Market Theatre

Bacchaefull (in the city)

 

 

The Old Abattoir

 

3 – 5, 8 – 11, 15 - 18 October 2008

 

 

 

ary Couzens

A review by Alice MacKenzie for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Bacchaefull (in the city) takes Euripides’ “Bacchae” and subtly updates it to the 21st century. The original is a tale of the revenge wrought by Dionysus, Greek God of creation and chaos and son of Zeus, on his royal but mortal side of the family, when they try to deny and violently repress his Godly powers and cling to order and logic. In Dirty Market Theatre’s plot-faithful version, the audience follows the performers through the disorientating labyrinth of the historian basements of the Old Abattoir. The smell of cold, wet stone offers a background to the chaos, ecstasy and madness as the events unfold.

It is the women, played by a cast of eleven, that take over the space and pull the audience into the show. Dionysus’ power seems to lie chiefly in his ability to induce an ecstatic hysteria in the women who are drawn to him. They are at their most powerful when they move in an untamed and unhinged mass; terrifying and attracting the men in the play in almost equal measures for all that they represent an opposition to the dominance of men, order and reason. The women act as a Greek Chorus, bearing witness to the actions of the male protagonists and responding to the tension and impending doom with increasingly wild running, breathing, dancing and chanting. We follow them as they weave through the space and the separate rooms where the scenes span out. At one point I realised, in an unusually male audience, that it seemed as though I was almost the only woman in the room not giving in to the pull of Dionysus. I felt a small urge to join them in their running and shouting. Hysteria is surprisingly easy to catch… The impression of a spontaneous uprising could be even more effective if the mix of ages amongst the women were greater. The addition of Jean Apps as Gwen the Pensioner gave a moment of real ambiguity and surprise when she first joined the group. More pensioners and the menopausal please!

Bacchaefull (in the city) is a show that is worth turning up early for (doors open at 7), as the pre-show introduction is intriguing enough to perhaps be the basis for a whole performance in itself. Each of Dionysus’ Women, the Bacchants, are taped into their own square in the underground space, setting up the contrasting themes of containment and liberation that echo throughout the play.  They repeat their secrets, fears and loneliness on a loop as the early audience drink their wine and walk between them as though in a gallery. So complete is the third wall created by the performers that the audience feels safe enough to stand very close to them and stare. An uncomfortable moment comes from watching Selina the Hoody (Beatriz Romilly) as she cries. I suddenly realise that I am standing behind a light that points directly at her, hiding me from her. A voyeur. Clumsily I move to a point just on the edge of her square where I too am in the light, where I feel more like I am sitting with her than staring coldly at her. I am not quite sure how to react to this person who is also a character, but one who looks so very human. This unsettling questioning of the relationship between audience and performer paves the way for an interesting journey.

However, Bacchaefull (in the city) is a play of contrasts and therefore, not solely a play of women.  The men feel compelled to act in response to the madness of their women who have abandoned the law of Thebes, the city in question, for the moral lawlessness of the hills. Gwilym Lloyd convincingly provides the testosterone as Dionysus’ cousin King Pentheus as he tries to stamp out the women's rebellion with violence and moral certitude. He refuses to accept that there can be anything other than order and reason, and Lloyd is fascinating to watch as his certainty and sanity are shaken. Dionysus, played by Benedict Hopper, is himself a man of ambiguity. Androgynous in his appearance, and playful in his style, does he free the women from the restrictions of their daily lives as city professionals, soldiers and prostitutes? Or manipulate and control them to a point where they abandon their own minds? The power play between Hopper and Lloyd creates some interesting scenes. Debbie Kent´s script comes into its own during these passages with some subtle referencing to the modern day. At one point Pantheus talks of the threat to his way of life, and of the people to the East being “unlike us”: an age-old fear of The Other that has particular relevance to the current War on Terror. I was very grateful that Kent was content to hint, leaving the audience space to respond and think on the ambiguities of the play.

The changes in the relationship between Dionysus and Pentheus become the pivot point. Perhaps it is in these moments face-to-face with his cousin, that Hopper´s Dionysus appears most powerful, most Godlike. Hopper seems to delight in these power games and comes across as much more comfortable than when he changes into his “true form” dressed as God, not man.  Maybe a slightly misguided change of costume as it seemed to restrict him instead of expanding him to Godlike proportions. Or perhaps Dionysus the God was not as content with his revenge as he had expected…

Dirty Market Theatre´s Bacchaefull (in the city) is a well written play given an edge by some strong performances and an amazing use of space. The disorientation induced by the stairs, passages and giant rooms of the Old Abattoir added to the tension, challenging the audience’s role by literally submerging them in the play. The audience was given space to explore, discovering hidden shrines and oddly lit corners amongst the goings-on of the performance. There were moments when the cast seemed slightly unsure, but these was soon swept away and the overall impression is one of magnetic chaos and subtle power games. Definitely a play that needs experiencing.

 

 

 

Box Office: 0844 477 1000 or www.ticketweb.co.uk
Tickets: £12, £8 concessions
Venue: The Old Abattoir, 187 – 221 St John’s Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 4LS
For further information: www.dirtymarket.co.uk

 

 

 

 

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