Monday, 31 August 2015

Greeks and Drama

I forgot to blog about it at the time, but on 14th August, the Almeida Theatre, with the British Museum, arranged a reading of the whole of Homer's Iliad, by a relay of over 60 actors and readers. ('Iliad Live'). I t started at 9 a.m. at the British Museum, and at 8 p.m. moved to the Almeida Theatre, and the whole thing was livestreamed
Iliad Live scripts
It was, in every sense of the word, Epic. 

I did not get to watch or listen to it all as I was working, but I dipped in and out all day, and was *very* impressed. Of course, the Iliad was written to be be performed, not read in a book, and works well even if you cannot see the whole thing. (Also, whoever was running the @IliadLive twitter account is a star in their own right and deserves greater recognition!) For instance:

GHOST ALERT: Now speaking is the ghost of Patroclus. He's asking to be buried. Which is fair enough after quite a long time dead.

So, having seen this, I was looking  forward very much to seeing the Almeida Theatre's production of Bakkhai (The Bacchae), a new translation of Euripides' classic. (which I booked months ago). The play premiered in 450 BC, so I shall not worry too much about spoilers...

I had a bit of a trek to get there, due to rail strikes and engineering work. However, I made it, and in time to meet up with a friend for lunch and a catch up, which was lovely.
In some respects, the production is quite traditional - there are three actors, plus a chorus(although the chorus are all women, which no doubt Euripides and the Ancient Greeks would not have approved of). 
There is minimal set and very few props - just a few fawn-skins, some wreaths, thyrsuses, and the occasional severed head.

The three actors were Ben Whishaw, Kevin Harvey and Bertie Carvel, all of whom play more than one role.

Ben Whishaw is Dionysus - he starts by addressing the audience directly "How do I look? Convincingly Human?"  Which at that point, he does, in a T-shirt and low-cut jeans, outlining for us his genealogy. (Son of Zeus, born by a lightning bolt, in case you were wondering)

As things unfold, and we learn that Dionysus is angry at those who fail to accept or acknowledge his godhood. And you really wouldn't like him when he is not happy. Although when he is happy, he could be a lot of fun to be around.
(Photo (C) Mark Brenner) 

King Pentheus (Carvel) ignores the advice of his father in law Kadmos (Harvey) and Kadmos's friend  Teiresias (Whishaw again) to join in Dionysus's rites.

This turns out to be a poor decision. Pentheus is determined to stamp out the irresponsible and unruly Bakkhai and their worship of Dionysus, putting those he catches into prison, and determined to crack down on them.

Dionysus poses one of his own worshippers in order to approach Pentheus, and to lead him on, to attempt to spy upon the wild women in the rituals. 

Dionysus is now no longer in his casual  modern dress but wears a long flowing fawnskin dress and is both sensuous and androgynous, flirting with both the audience, and with Pentheus - but also illustrating, all too clearly, that the Greek pantheon was, on the whole, much better at wrath and vengeance than at mercy. .  

Whishaw makes a very impressive god, very clearly not quite human...

As might be expected for one who has the hubris to challenge a god,Pentheus ends up humiliated and dead, having been tricked into dressing as a woman in order to spy upon the bakkhai in their rites (which, for a straight-laced, misogynistic politician he enjoyed way too much) , and then torn limb from limb by, among others, his own mother (also played by Carvel) 

There are lots of tensions and conflicts- between belief and non-belief, masculinity and femininity, wildness and civilization (or at least urbanity)

And through it all the chorus provides a, well, chorus, of exposition and emphasis, with songs an chants, all perfectly times and almost a concert in it's own right. They were superb.

In fact, the entire play was superb. I don't know whether I have any chance of seeing the other plays in the season, Medea and Orestia, but having seen this, I would like to see the others. And I definitely want to see more of Ben Whishaw's work - I've seen him live once before, in Peter and Alice (with Judi Dench), and on screen as Richard II in 'The Hollow Crown' (and of course as Q in the more recent Bond films) but this gave him the opportunity to demonstrate he has a much greater range. 

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