Heather Neill previews a play that's capable of evoking humour and horror in its audience
By Euripides (with lyrics and text by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy)
Kneehigh Theatre, touring
Emma Rice, director of this riveting production, admits it is something of "a white-knuckle ride" to get from the naughty humour, which begins her company's version, to the horror which must end it. Complete commitment by the actors, clever lighting, music and choreography enable this ensemble to pull it off triumphantly. But, you may be wondering, where are the wicked laughs in Euripides's tragedy?
The plot concerns the frenzied killing of Pentheus, king of Thebes, by his own mother, Agave. She has left the city to take part in an orgy of violence and Dionysian excess with other Theban women and does not recognise her son, who is in disguise. Strait-laced Pentheus and the blind seer Tiresias are tempted by Dionysus, the god of drink, sex and pleasure, son of Zeus and Agave's dead sister Semele, to dress as women to spy on the secret female rituals.
For Emma, tragedy and comedy are close: "Comedy is tragedy gone wrong."
Kneehigh's version begins with men of all shapes and sizes - members of the chorus creeping shyly on to the stage dressed only in rubber corsets. Above them are tulle tutus, which they duly don, enjoying their prettiness. So are these women (as in the original) or men in drag? "They are women, but played by men, because when we tried to work out the function of the chorus we saw it as expressing transgression. We wanted the Bacchae to be seductive; we wanted the audience to want to join them," Emma says.
As they thus break the rules of civilised behaviour, they also make wands and armies out of newspaper, like Blue Peter presenters touched with madness.
As Dionysus, R"bert Lucskay struts, sexily sinister, coolly amused, in his high heels and occasionally breaks into his native Hungarian. Emma says she understands why the Greeks kept horrific action off-stage - there were times when she thought it would be impossible to show - but, she says, "we can't pretend Tarantino hasn't happened". Besides, the daily horrors reported from around the world - the siege at a Beslan school in Russia happened during rehearsals - made the company feel they had to "look demons in the eye".
Given all this, anyone teaching The Bacchae might think a visit to the production a waste of time, but it needn't be. Those beginning to tackle Euripides will find the blackboard family tree illuminating and funny, and the production in general a way of laying to rest fears about inaccessibility. Those more familiar with the original will find the main theme intact - that the repressed will seek freedom, but freedom has a price and, embraced without rules, can lead to tragedy.
* The Hall for Cornwall, Truro, until November 27, Bristol Old Vic, January 25 to February 12. For information about other possible venues in 2005 visit www.kneehigh.co.uk