by Matthew Hull
Maenads – or Bacchants, as they are often known – have for years captivated the very artists who have captivated us; their raw, unadulterated frenzy presents a vision of sheer human nature which is at once seductive and horrific.
So as I sat in Exeter Chapel on Thursday evening for a double-bill of Euripidean adaptations, The Bacchae and Orpheus, it was to my lasting bafflement that these figures were robbed utterly of their power.
The performances were well staged: action occurred in the nave of the Chapel, which allowed the players to act between and among the audience. It was therefore intimate, and although the depth and breadth of an orchestra were lacking, the concourse allowed for movement and this was not dearly missed.
“A more restrained cabal of Bacchants you will likely never see”
Production and staging aside, they were problematic on many levels. The Maenads themselves were twee and profoundly unthreatening; they put one in mind of the fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Dressed in clean white robes and with perfect hair, their prancing choreography made them seem, if anything, delicate. A more restrained cabal of Bacchants you will likely never see.
In mitigation, their acting per se was very good; but their polite depiction of Bacchanalian frenzy did the plays a disservice. Bacchants find their purchase on the popular imagination by wholly embracing their state of intoxication: from Romantic libertines such as Percy Shelley (Ode to the West Wind) to purveyors of gothic horror (The Secret History of Donna Tartt) many have been so inspired. Thursday’s portrayal left me unconvinced of the Maenad chorus as a licentious and dangerous group.
The play consequently lost a great deal of its tragic power. The next and fatal blow to our chances of taking them seriously at all was also, in a way, the performances’ strong suit.
They were in their own fashion very funny indeed. At times, absolutely hilarious. The first play (The Bacchae) was packed with individual moments of slapstick comedy. Ivo Gruev made Pentheus his very own; all in all, he was reminiscent of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno Gerhard. Dionysus (Christopher Evans) opened his prologue with gravity, but also added comic elements. In one scene, a raving Pentheus interacts with the eagle-lectern of the chapel and chirps at it; this was very funny. However, such scenes quickly grew tiresome. One springs to mind in which Dionysus kneels at Pentheus’ feet, ostensibly to see to his belt and Pentheus demanded of him how he was to stroke his wand; all this while Pentheus was at his most flamboyant in female dress.
“Tragedy and comedy made for uneasy bedfellows”
Not only did these scenes become wearisome but they also made me unable to interpret tragic elements seriously. Comedy and tragedy are not, and indeed should not be, discrete and mutually exclusive; tragedy can be wry and incisive, while comedy is capable of illuminating the most genuine of topics. Just thinking of Chris Morris’ Four Lions reminds us that a good black comedy can be at once tragically potent and hilarious.
This performance was neither. Instead tragedy and comedy made for uneasy bedfellows; one scene from the second play (Orpheus) exemplifies this. We are given a prologue by Mercury which in turn gives us back-story. Aristeo, Mopsus and Tirsi play out the scene culminating in Eurydice’s death: they are, respectively, the rash young one, the wiser older one and the idiot. This trio is a common trope in comedy familiar to anyone who has seen Father Ted, Blackadder, Two and a half Men or almost anything else. Aristeo’s lust is clearly intended to be funny (he flirts badly with women in the audience); but then there is a blood-curdling scream as Eurydice dies offstage. Then everything is deadly serious as Orpheus (Tom Dixon) sues for Eurydice’s release from Hades.
But this tragic dialogue was unpersuasive, owing to the slapstick picture that had been painted, a lack of strength in delivery and unconvincing Maenads. The result was a disorientating and strangely-paced juxtaposition.
The music, however, was generally commendable: Ben van Leeuwen’s composition was easy to listen to and unobtrusive. The libretto fit the music well; the chamber orchestra was excellent and the singing was, on the whole, of a very high standard. Tom Dixon’s arias were particularly enjoyable and formed a highlight of the evening.
This was not an evening without merit, of that I can be sure. Set pieces were pretty good. But set pieces do not a good piece make.