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The Lightning Child

Published 19 September 2013

Any Glastonbury veteran worth their salt will be able to clearly – or not so clearly as the case might be – conjure an image of al fresco 3am dancing, dressed in an outfit no doubt comprising any combination of sequins, neon or harem trousers, feeling like you are, in actual fact, the greatest dancer.

What has this got to do with the altogether more conventional Shakespeare’s Globe and its first ever musical The Lightning Child, I hear you cry? Well, the mud-splattered disco children of festivals across the nation appear to have found their way to Bankside in time to close the summer season with a psychedelic bang, bringing with them an equally eccentric mix of characters from a brooding Billie Holiday to wife-badgered Neil Armstrong and a narrator who goes by the name of Ladyboy Herald and looks like a Rastafarian Aladdin.

Indeed, as he makes his entrance as the man in the Globe’s suspended moon, he could easily have opened proceedings with a rendition of A Whole New World to explain his role in the surreal evening of entertainment, revealing, as he does, the intricate parallel worlds in Ché Walker’s mad adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae. Instead the production relies on far less Disney-friendly music by Doctor Who star Arthur Darvill, whose skills range from haunting chorus pieces to jazzy, witty solos with a touch of reggae added by the onstage band who soulfully bang their steel drums and pluck their electric guitars from colourfully decorated scaffolding.

Loosely tying together the story of the vengeful god Dionysus and his brutal battle with Thebes’ uptight King Pentheus, Walker doubles the duration and throws in all manner of contemporary distractions, from the tale of two smug, well-healed housemates whose friendship turns psychotic to a less amusing story of a pair of heroin addicts discovering pleasure in unlikely places only to lose the battle with their own demons. Holiday pops up to demonstrate the pleasure of music, while a scene between a gender-doubting doctor and athlete Caster Semenya serves to question what, in fact, makes a man a man and a woman a woman.

This gender confusion is a theme raised frequently during The Lightning Child, having, as it does, Tommy Coleman’s smooth-tongued, disconcertingly calm Dionysus at its centre; the shiny-haired, erotically blessed god first appearing on stage like some genetic cross between a 1970s soul legend and a disco ball. As the play explains in its characteristically confusing way, he’s a girl, he’s a boy, he’s an eagle, he’s a supernova. Flanked by a lustful posy of girls dressed in purple bras and flowing chiffon, to my mind he’s Prince, with the moves and ability to shimmy in platforms to match.

We’re frequently told to not worry too much about making sense of what appears before our eyes as Matthew Dunster’s very adult, camp production crosses through time and across the globe in a heartbeat; advice I’d recommend taking to heart. But there is plenty here to entertain lovers of the crude and rude with the addition of Bette Bourne’s surly Teiresias, who has the audience in fits of laughter with profanities delivered with cocksure arrogance and a Keith Richard’s drawl, Clifford Samuel’s spoilt, immature Pentheus who discovers, along with the rest of the company, a penchant for gold lame and Coleman’s brutal Dionysus, who supplies us with the quite horrifyingly bloody end all Greek tragedies require, traditional or not.

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