Gender battles and a sexually ambiguous Greek (rock) god

Theatre review: The Bacchae (Mick Lally Theatre, Druid Lane)

CURRENTLY RUNNING at Druid’s Mick Lally Theatre, Max Hafler’s terrific production of Euripides’ The Bacchae attests to the gifted student talent of NUI Galway’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance and Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland.

The play, in an adaptation by David Greig, opens with the arrival of new god Dionysos in Thebes seeking to have his divinity recognized. He is already worshipped by his female devotees the Bacchae but his claims for recognition are rejected by the city’s ruler Pentheus who is enraged by the bacchantes’ licentious and ecstatic rites and is determined to crush the new faith and re-impose patriarchal order.

The play is driven by conflict between a range of dualities; the mortal and divine, male and female, rational and irrational, intellect and instinct, order and chaos. These clashes are every bit as alive for audiences today as they were for the Athenians who first saw this play in 405BC and give The Bacchae its enduring, undiminished power.

There is something of the rock star about Dionysos with his sexually ambiguous preening and glamour and Michael Foley convincingly ranges from camp coquetry and seductiveness to fearsome rage when the god unleashes his vengeance on Pentheus. When Dionysos lets himself be captured and is brought before Pentheus their encounter and verbal sparring has echoes of Christ’s meeting with Pilate, but in the play’s shattering finale his cruel vengefulness seems to spring from the thin-skinned petulance of a Donald Trump.

That finale shows the heart-rending aftermath of Pentheus’s death; his aghast mother Agave suddenly realises she has murdered her son in a Bacchic frenzy and she and her father Kadmos are convulsed with grief and anguish. It is remarkable how in these climactic moments of the play it is their human suffering more than Dionysos’s divinity which creates the deeper impact.

Max Hafler and his excellent cast and crew deliver a really fine staging of this primal, challenging and powerful play. The music and song in which the Bacchae deliver many of their lines was constantly impressive, while Sile Mannion’s costumes and Aisling Fitzsimons’ masks equally gave the show a strong visual impact.

The acting throughout is of a high standard, especially in the second act, which opens with the very funny scene of Dionysos getting Pentheus (Cillian Hegarty ) into female clothing so that he can spy on the Bacchae. It’s worth recalling that when the play was first staged in Athens both actors and audience would have been exclusively male so Euripides’ comments on gender dynamics in that context would have packed quite a charge.

That opening comic scene rapidly yields to the full impact of the play’s terrible tragic denouement, which is described and enacted in powerful soliloquies by Aisling Fitzsimons as the slave who sees Pentheus’s death, Richie Fitzgerald as Kadmos telling of the destruction of his family, and Sarah O’Beirne as the poor Agave, the mother waking from her Dionysian ecstasy to the hideous discovery of what she has done.

The Bacchae continues up to Saturday at 8pm.


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