Photo taken mid-performance. The Maenads dance around Pentheus.

Entering the nightmarish world of Dionysus: The Bacchae review

“Join the ritual. Join the dance.” So says the poster for The Bacchae by Kylix Productions, enticing the audience into the Keble O’Reilly Theatre for a night of hypnotic, nightmarish revelry. Directed by Freyja Harrison-Wood with assistant director Ted Fussell, this production is an adaptation of the original play by Euripides. To quote the synopsis handed out at the performance, it follows “Dionysus, the god of wine and religious ecstasy, leading his band of women – the Maenads – into Thebes in a flurry of dancing, orgies, and violence. Pentheus, the King of Thebes, refuses to acknowledge him as a god, which sends their world spiralling into an anarchic series of bloody and hedonistic frenzies.” The finale of such frenzies involves the murder of Pentheus (who is himself disguised as a woman to witness the Maenads’ all-female rituals) at the hands of his own mother, Agave.

Euripides’ The Bacchae was a play I came across in sixth form and I’d been fascinated even then by this barbaric tale with its inhumanity that contained no real moral or cautionary tale beyond the rule which precipitates many ancient Greek plays: don’t mess with the gods. Not acting as a measure for how to live your life, the Greek gods are rife in their capriciousness, as epitomised in Kylix Productions’ iteration of the play, where Wally McCabe’s performance of Dionysus was dynamic, witty, and increasingly sinister. Similarly, Alice Wyles’ and Immanuel Smith’s increasingly manic performances as Agave and Pentheus respectively elicited chills. 

The set, designed by Zixi Cai, Sabrina Goldsmith and Kat Surgay, was incredible. Highly immersive, the scene begins to be set the second you enter the walkway to the theatre, with ominous Blair Witch-style wicker dolls hanging from the ceiling. Upon entering the stage-space itself, we were lured in by the rhythmic drumming of McCabe, who overlooked the Maenads entwined in a circle on the main stage. The play lived up to its promise in the poster: from the very beginning when the Maenads rose performing a dance in which there was rhythmic chanting, synchronised speech and serialised breathing. Credit must be given to the choreographer Konstantina Beritza and the Maenads themselves for the hypnotic, ritualistic dance routines.

It’s always interesting to see how classical plays like The Bacchae are adapted (to whatever extent they are reinterpreted and reformed) for the modern stage. A natural barrier is created: how do we relate to such a long dramatic tradition? How do we keep it relevant in the modern era, or do we even need to? Costume designers May Liu Cannon, Biba Cope-Brown and Kat Surgay implicitly engagee with these tensions through the decision to present Pentheus as a modern political figure in his suit, alongside the modern military-style dress for the soldiers. It makes the paganistic, natural world of the Maenads seem all the more jarring by comparison, adorned in flower crowns, ropes and antlers. The pure white costume of Dionysus was an interesting ironic subversion of the connotations of virginity whilst also elevating the character, their costuming operating within both the mortal and supernatural world. The setting mimicked this duality, with the modern graffiti and urban build-up being reclaimed by nature. The ivy interwoven throughout the set further emphasised the central theme in the play of old forces reclaiming their power over humans.

The paganistic world of the Maenads and Dionysus starkly contrasted with the mortal world dominated by Pentheus, emphasised by the significant shifts in lighting and costuming between the mortal and supernatural worlds. The lighting and sound designer David Street and lighting executive Libby Alldread did an admirable job of emphasising these contrasts, the harsher, interrogatory lighting associated with the mortal world being slowly taken over by the sensual pink lighting associated with the Dionysian rituals, which itself turns to a purer red as the play turns from hedonism to violence. This power play which signals Dionysus’ takeover of the narrative is furthered through the fantastic use of sound design. The echoes and demonic voicing, wherein Dionysus talks through people, was used sparingly to evoke the increasing madness of The Bacchae

The entire stage was used to great effect, with characters appearing at the overhead balcony to witness the chaos unfold as the power balance crumbles. This created a particularly visually stunning mise-en-scène of the Maenads killing Pentheus in a bloodbath whilst Dionysus watched from above in the pinnacle of the play’s madness. The flashing lights and swirling red petals for blood emphasised the chaos and carnage that is brought to a false relief when we return to the stark lighting of the mortal world to see the Maenads calmly dance around a maypole. The relief was lost as the idyllic music warped and I slowly realised what sat atop the maypole: Pentheus’ severed head. The painted, wigged prop head was more macabre than if it had been realistic, the symbolic use of roses for eyes harkening back to the bloodstains on the seer Tiresias’ bandage blindfold earlier in the play: the head becomes the symbol of the prophecy fulfilled.

Overall, this was a gripping, dark and twisted performance, ritualistically bringing Dionysus to life onstage once more.

Image Credit: Ben Johnson