It's over 24 centuries old and yet it speaks to us about subjects like today's conflict in the Middle East. Sir Peter Hall's new production of Euripides' Bacchai is thrilling audiences at the National's Olivier Theatre. Its translator – playwright Colin Teevan – talks to us about the power of this tragedy for our times.
The god Dionysus introduces us to “the wild abandon of the play” in Colin Teevan’s new translation of the Bacchai for the National. And the play is full of wild abandon: the dynamic Dionysus, god of wine and dramatic rites, leads his band of mystic followers into the city of Thebes, and turns tradition on its head. He sends the women of the city into the forest in a rampant frenzy and inspires old, wise men to dress up in deer skins and dance. But this wild abandon has a dark side: Dionysus is there to take revenge on a city that has rejected him – on his aunts and his cousin Pentheus, the tryrannical and repressed leader, who denies his very existence. The play is both brutal and funny – it has been termed a tragedy, but Teevan prefers to call it “a black comedy”. While the audience can laugh when the stuffy Pentheus is enticed into a frock, the merciless humiliation and punishment of him is terrible to watch. Teevan neatly pins down the contradictions of the play: “Dionysus is related to alcohol – he’s got the liberation of alcohol but also the hangover.”
Bacchai is clearly energetic and thought provoking but Sir Peter Hall, the director, says that it is “dazzlingly contemporary”. Given the fact that it was written over 24 centuries ago, how is this so? Both he and Teevan feel they have located something remarkably topical in the play – they see parallels to the terrorist attacks in America and the current tension between the East and the West. Teevan synopsises the play in the programme:
A charismatic religious leader, born to a powerful royal family, disappears into the wilds of Asia Minor and there indoctrinates a band of followers into his extreme beliefs. With these fanatical followers he then returns to the West to wreak revenge on all those whom he hold to be enemies of his faith…
It is true that Dionysus infiltrates the Western city of Thebes with an Eastern mysticism which strikes fear into the heart of the city. Teevan’s Pentheus calls Dionysus “filthy foreigner”, clearly delineating the cultural divide and xenophobia of this new, strange religion. Teevan says he was surprised at the analogies he found in the text as he had completed most of the translation before the events on September 11. He does concede that this interpretation is “only from one narrative point of view” but adds that, “the play addresses topics of belief and faith – these questions don’t go out of date.”
"Euripides is not interested in morality, he tends to leave it up to you to make the decision."
So maybe this play is particularly appropriate for today. Teevan believes that Euripides writes about crisis. He also thinks that the production of Aeschylus’ Oresteia at the National in 1981 was appropriate to that era, one dominated by Margaret Thatcher and materialism and economic stability: “Aeschylus wraps things up, Euripides leaves things in chaos. The other tragedies affirm the integrity of the city state,” says Teevan. “The Bacchai is right for a certain time. We are in a crisis, compared to 1981, a time of nationalism.” Euripides’ interest in crisis and chaos reveals something of his attitude towards resolution: “Euripides is not interested in morality, he tends to leave it up to you to make the decision. The Bacchai doesn’t explain itself and it’s not going to tell you what it’s about. I wrote in a line at the end, where Cadmus is struggling for a moral and asks Dionyus ‘Are gods as vengeful as men?’ And Dionysus replies ‘Gods are not vengeful, Gods are.’” So whilst the other tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles, end up reaffirming the stability of society in some ways, Euripides leaves the audience with an uncomfortable aftertaste, a host of unanswered questions. “Euripides was like the John Lennon of his day, a man of the people who also said all the unpopular things.”
Although the production may be startlingly topical, it uses dramaturgical methods familiar to the ancient Greek stage. Just three actors play a total of eight main characters; the frequent role changes are facilitated by the use of full face masks, a technique that director Peter Hall has used extensively in previous productions, such as Tantalus and the Oresteia. The masks make the chorus of female followers, the Bacchai, an eerie collective: it is difficult to judge who is speaking, or whether the actors are male or female. One considerable irony that the masks allow is that the same actor, William Houston, plays both Pentheus and his murderer, his own mother Agave. “William Houston is absolutely sensational, his Agave is great. He plays a good woman – I think he really enjoys it.” The decision to use the same actor evolved from workshops prior to performance, although Teevan urged Hall from the start to do this for psychological reasons: “Euripides would not have introduced a character at the end who has all the tragic lines. If you use two actors to play it, it feels very odd, whereas one actor adds depth to it.” The consequence is a powerful scene where Agave holds up the dismembered head of her son Pentheus, which is in fact the bloodied mask of the character Pentheus.
How do the actors cope with playing so many main parts? Greg Hicks plays the main part of Dionysus as well as two others: “I’m playing a god, a blind prophet and a demented servant all in the space of half an hour.” Teevan admits, “It’s a big challenge for the actors, but there is a terrific logic of it. It is exhausting for them – Greg’s got the most, Will’s got the most dramatic changes and David (Ryall) is playing all the liberals.” The use of masks certainly demands a clear use of diction and expressive body language. When Hicks plays the priest of Dionysus, he builds up the characterisation with a repetitive stroking of his long blonde locks and mischievous swaying of his hips; as Dionysus his movements are almost cartoon like in their boldness and masculinity. But the use of masks also demands a different kind of writing. Teevan says that he knew that he would be writing for a masked production and subsequently adapted his writing style: “It’s hard to describe, it is different. With masks, you write in a much colder, faster way. Adjectives completely stand out which is really strange, because they’re so heavily coloured. A mask puts such intensity onto words, you really notice when you use something that is not from the normal palette of speech.” Hall commends Teevan’s translation as “a fine text, cool and precise”.
This “cool and precise” verse is accompanied by a percussive score composed by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Head of Music at the National Theatre during Peter Hall’s directorship. He uses, according to Teevan, “two pipe players, two percussionists and one wall of concrete noises”. Birtwistle composed the music around Teevan’s script; Hall reports that Birtwistle calls it “speculative music” because he doesn’t know if it will work until he sees it with the action. Teevan says that he and Birtwistle agreed that their languages – literary and musical – should not duplicate meaning: “One of the principles we’ve tried to keep to, at least Harrison and I, is there’s no point him saying something with the music if I’m already saying it with the words and vice versa.” And the chorus actually learnt each word and syllable as a musical value – a quaver or a semi-quaver. The result is a powerful interplay between the speech and the rhythm: “So you end up with what I think is an anti opera. You get words then music, words then music: it’s like a debate between the words and the music.”
After the Bacchai’s sojourn at the National, this play is returning home: it will go to the ancient amphitheatre at Epidaurus in Greece, where masks and music were routinely used in performance. Seating 10 to 12 thousand people, the outdoor amphitheatre has, remarkably, perfect acoustics. Teevan himself has not yet been to Greece and so feels he cannot comment personally on the difference between the stage at the National and that at Epidaurus, “You’ll have to ask me when I come back. But Peter told me that when his casts have come back from there, the scale had grown – they were like a cast of giants.”
Colin Teevan is a dramatist and a classicist. He collaborated with Peter Hall on Tantalus and Cuckoos; his recent plays include The Walls at the National as part of the Studio Springboards season, and Monkey at the Young Vic.