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The Bacchae

Published 17 April 2008

Being a god yet having your status denied, and having your dead mother labelled a liar for claiming she slept with Zeus, is enough to make any young deity slightly miffed. When it is a hedonistic god with a healthy imagination, such as Dionysus in Euripides's The Bacchae, the unrepentant people of Thebes had better watch out. Matthew Amer was at the Lyric Hammersmith to see the first major transfer from this year's Edinburgh festival.

In less than two years, the National Theatre of Scotland has created a name for itself as one of the most exciting new companies working in Britain today. Its production of Black Watch, first seen at last year's Edinburgh Festival, was one of the most talked about pieces of 2006. The Bacchae, this year's Festival offering, has a lot to live up to. The addition of Alan Cumming to the cast merely heightens the expectation.

Cumming's entrance is attention grabbing in the extreme; he is back and so is his deific character. He slowly drifts to earth, his bare bottom welcoming the crowd, as a god descending to be among his people. His people have, of course, dishonoured him and refused to accept him as a deity, so, in time honoured tradition, he is out to make them pay. On hand to help is his collection of gorgeous henchwomen, resplendent in decadent crimson, The Bacchae.

Cumming is perfectly suited to playing the louche, cocky, sexual, androgynous yet intensely masculine Dionysus. Few actors seem more adept at producing a sense of wicked mischievousness with a twinkle of their eye. His main foil for the evening comes in the shape of Tony Curran's Pentheus, the current king who refuses to accept Dionysus as god, no matter how many chances and warnings he is given. As a result, he is tricked into a spot of inadvisable cross-dressing to spy on the bewitched womenfolk of Thebes, a wonderful scene in which Dionysus becomes an ancient Greek equivalent of Trinny and Susannah.

As for The Bacchae, they become the show's chorus, utilising their singing voices to explain the tale. And there is a lot of explaining, but there are also some genuinely clever and affecting moments of theatrical genius that writing too much about would just spoil. It is a story about a god, so you should expect something miraculous, shouldn't you?

The Bacchae plays at the Lyric Hammersmith until 22 September.

MA

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