Director: Maria Makenna
It takes guts to put on a Greek tragedy in a fringe festival where usually the focus is on new writing. And Esmond Road Productions has made little attempt to update The Bacchae despite the late night house music that plays as the audience finds its seats. With few alterations, this is a straightforward telling of Euripides’ story.
The one major change to this otherwise faithful version is that some of the male characters are now female. Dionysus is now the daughter rather than the son of mortal woman Semele and god Zeus. Her mortal family refuses, however, to believe that she is a demi-god, and she, in disgust, is determined to wreck her revenge on the house of Cadmus. Dionysus and her female followers, The Bacchae, go on a drunken rampage outside Thebes, pulling apart the bodies of live cattle before targeting the next unbeliever, her cousin Pentheus, now also female.
Esmond Road’s Bacchae, played on the bare stage of the Hens and Chickens, begins with music by Doll Normal, suggesting that perhaps the action will take place in a nightclub. The actors wear neon masks that glow under the black lights. It seems a likely location for such a story, as aren’t clubs and bars promoting the same pursuit of pleasure that Dionysus stands for? And what a show that would be with the characters reimagined as dancers or DJs. Murder on the dance floor, indeed.
Instead, even though Dionysus hands over ecstasy tablets to her followers, this version is set in the Theban mountains and the initial premise, unfortunately, vanishes. Everyone, not just Pentheus, is ‘of rapid tongue’, as the cast sets the scene, and the story will remain quite complex to anyone new to the play. But as the narrative progresses it becomes clearer, and it makes sense that Dionysus (Erica Martin) is an unflappable Canadian and that Pentheus (Catalina Croitoru) is a cranky tyrant. The shocking conclusion to Euripides’s play is carefully retained, helped by Chantelle Micallef’s captivating performance as Agave, and the moral that we should believe in the gods loses none of its impact, even if the play only lasts 55 minutes.
By turning Dionysus and Pentheus into female characters, the power of the Bacchae, powerful and violent women, is undone, and blunts any feminist interpretations, but it does allow women to play male roles as women rather than as men as in The National’s current reworking of Sophocles’ Philoctetes.
Director Maria Makenna has taken few liberties with T.A.Buckley’s translation of the Ancient Greek text, and while this adheres to Esmond Road’s motto ‘Women Making Old Theatre New Again’ you can’t help but wish she’d risked a little more and had really gone to town with the nightclub setting.
Runs until 25 August 2021
Camden Fringe runs from 2 to 29 August 2021