04/05/2013 - 10/05/2013
After the success of their most recent production Perfectly Wasted (in collaboration with A Slightly Isolated Dog and Downstage Theatre), Long Cloud starts the new year continuing to strengthen their ensemble.
Developing a work based off Charles L. Mee’s The Bacchae 2.1, Long Cloud is diving into the world of the ancient Greek, exploring a choral, archaic and primal theatre. In this retelling of Euripides’ classic, Charles Mee has combined text from a range of sources, including Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Georges Bataille and Joan Nestle’s Lesbian Herstory Archives.
In a world not unlike our own, in a small town, the women have disappeared.
They have flocked to the mountains, where they worship Dionysus, drink wine, talk and celebrate strange archaic rituals. The repressed townspeople sway between wanting to abandon their lives and join them, or stick with the stale and ordered status quo.
The world is a collision of men and women, civility and savagery, old world and new world, and the champions of reason against those who are led by their instinct. Its characters—from the young, rigid Pentheus, to the sensuous and wild Agave—indicts our generation’s assumptions about our own liberation, and shows us just how much more we have covered up.
WHITIREIA THEATRE, 25- 27 Vivian St, Wellington
4th-10th May, 7:30 PM.
Matinee Sunday 5th 2:00PM.
(No show Mondays)
BOOKINGS PHONE 04 238 6225
or ONLINE www.thetheatre.co.nz
set design: Roseann McKie
costume design: Jim Stanton
lighting design: Jason Longstaff
sound design: Te Aihe Butler
Photography: Philip Merry
Promotion material: Sollective
Director: Stella Reid & Daniel Emms
Audience robbed of chance to fully engage
Review by John Smythe 06th May 2013
When the Athenians of old flocked to their theatre festivals they had a good working knowledge of the characters – be they gods, demi gods or mere mortals – and their relationships and backstories. Nevertheless those classic poetical texts spell out very clearly who’s who and what’s what. And the moral was always clear, with ‘the gods’ representing what we would now regard as forces of nature and human psychology.
This adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae (which was posthumously premiered in 405 BC), devised by Long Cloud Youth Theatre, guided by co-directors Stella Reid and Daniel E mms, is in turn based on Charles L Mee’s The Bacchae 2.1, which blends the original with more modern texts, including Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Georges Bataille and Joan Nestle’s Lesbian Herstory Archives. And it seems to take for granted we have an even better prior knowledge of the characters and their mythological backstories than the ancient Athenians did; that we don’t need spoon-feeding, just the odd brief identifier here or there perhaps.
The question is whether this version of The Bacchae should be reviewed on its own terms or in relation to its progenitors. If I have a stab at both, then, you can decide which is more relevant.
The ancientgreece.com website tells us “Euripides represented the new moral, social, and political movements that were taking place in Athens towards the end of the 5th century BC. It was a period of enormous intellectual discovery, in which ‘wisdom’ ranked as the highest earthly accomplishment. Anaxagoras had just proven that air was an element, and that the sun was not a divinity but matter. New truths were being established in all departments of knowledge, and Euripides, reacting to them, brought a new kind of consciousness to the writing of tragedy. His interest lay in the thought and experience of the ordinary individual rather than in the experiences of legendary figures of the heroic past.”
The excellent summary on smoop.com establishes Dionysus as the son of Zeus whose motive for avenging himself on the house of Cadmus is their refusal to acknowledge his divinity. It then clearly sets out the tragic trajectory of a disaffected wife and mother’s defection to the Maenad sisterhood, whose reputed activities includes “dancing in the woods, drinking wine, breast feeding baby animals, and dismembering whoever gets in their way” only to find that the man-in-woman’s-clothing she has dealt to thus for infiltrating their enclave is none other than her own son.
That woman is Agave, her son King Pentheus is the doomed cross-dressing intruder and her father, Cadmus (the founder of Thebes) – who, along with the blind prophet Tiresias has warned him not to do it – is the one who reveals her crime against nature.
Charles L Mee starts his play with an unidentified Dionysus as a silent transvestite who whirls dervish-like, as does a lone woman who is joined by others … Elsewhere Teresias summons Kadmos (same name, different spelling) and the two old men fantasise about joining the women to get away from the men be able to do as they please. Pentheus – who is also unidentified to the audience (for no good reason; just lazy dramaturgy as far as I can see) – appears as the uptight ruler fixated on order in an emotionally arid post-war state …
As the Women do their thing in the hills (Mee suggests a butoh performer or Indian dancer, to esoterically honour the fact that Dionysus had traction in Asia before infiltrating Thebes as his entrée to Greece), Pentheus captures the “effeminate stranger who preys on our women”, who remains unidentified to the audience as Dionysus. Pentheus and his Aides reveal how their repression of natural urges has become warped into grotesque fantasies involving the mutilation and homicide of those they desire and therefore hate.
The ‘Stranger’ is chained, he sets himself free and does an orgiastic dance with snakes, Pentheus and his aides return – and, apparently to save himself but actually to set destiny on its inevitable course, the Stranger counsels them that dressing as women to infiltrate the Maenad community will be more successful than the warlike confrontation they have already attempted without success (because the woman fought back).
The Women exchange all sorts of chat and stories, establishing their value systems and experiences, before and after the new arrival joins them. And when the betrayal is discovered, Agave kills the unrecognised Pentheus in an orgiastic frenzy which sustains as Kadmos attempts to make his daughter see that she has killed her own son. Dionysus gets the last word, about what unfathomable creatures human beings are, and the play ends as it began with him and the women whirling like Dervishes.
The Long Cloud version compounds the problems inherent with the Mee text – primarily lack of character identification and dispensing with Dionysus establishing his motive for setting the humans on their course of self-destruction – by messing with the gender elements, despite the directors acknowledging in their programme note that it’s “about gender and genitals”.
Having women play men is fine, but Kadmos, while dressed in masculine clothes, is (I think I’m right here) addressed as a woman, the mother of Agave, which rather alters the gender politics at the end. More importantly it’s not the main authority-figure man – identified as the ruling General but not as Pentheus – who dresses as a woman to infiltrate the sisterhood but an Aide played by a female dressed as a man until s/he masquerades as a woman to be sent to her doom.
In retrospect I realise the strange mirroring ritual the General enacts as the Aide is cross-dressed could be intended to indicate this is Pentheus himself being transformed but there is no way the audience can be expected to get that. So the portentous “Look what you hold” at the end is robbed of its full dramatic power – and attendant moral – because we don’t realise who Agave has slaughtered, unless we already know the original story and can work out on-the-trot what’s been retained and what’s been changed according to which conventions.
In other respects, knowing a bit about Greek tragedies turns out to be a hindrance. Even if I had known the transvestite in the sparkly black frock was the one and only Dionysus, seeing two of them, with nothing indicating a duality was relevant, might still have confused me. When the young man who looks like an Edwardian hiker is clearly named as Teresias, whom I know to be old and blind, I assume this must be him as a young man before he was afflicted, but no, so the classic point of ‘the blind man who sees more that the sighted ones’ is missed altogether. (In the Mee version, “He is an old man, and blind, with a white cane.”)
White sticks are effectively used by the Aides, held as staves and banged on the ground to indicate their repressive power. They are amusingly dressed in the khaki and brown tones of Scouts and Brownies, while the women are in calico skirts, stained to look as if they’ve frolicked in swamps, and pale tops (costume designer, Jim Stanton). The visual, physical and rhythmical dynamics are strong throughout this production.
By having the women sitting about and chatting amiably in groups as we come in and find our seats, they are well established as ‘the norm’, so the forces of repression are equally clearly marked as ‘the baddies’. Quite why the women turn out to be in the thrall of transvestites whose demeanour – albeit subtly portrayed here – is a pastiche of a type of femininity these women have no truck with, remains a mystery for us to puzzle over if we are so inclined.
The dangerous dimensions of both extremes are clearly articulated and demonstrated: the repressively ordered men harbour sick fantasies born of self-loathing (for being human) which is transferred to their potential victims; the liberated women find great pleasure in their freedoms but seek and indulge in an unbridled ecstasy that sees them lose all reason and judgement.
At face value – given the lack of clarity on who, what and why – the ending depicts a woman and her gang savagely murdering an anonymous man (played by a woman), her mother asking her to look at who she has murdered (but leaving us none the wiser), then the General figure (Pentheus) standing beside the murderer woman (Agave) to create an image I mistakenly take to mean that a husband-wife status quo has been restored – and what do we think of that?
While there is plenty of potential for audiences to interpret what they see in whatever way they wish, I assert it would be impossible for anyone without prior knowledge of the Euripides play, and a clear understanding of who these characters are and what conventions are being employed in this production, to find a coherence in what they witness that adds up to a satisfactory whole, let alone more than the sum of its parts.
The cast of 20 are just listed in the programme with no character names attributed. Although some could work on their articulation and voice projection. there are no weak leaks; all acquit themselves well and as an ensemble they are exemplary.
They, their directors and the designers obviously know the who, what and why of it all so there is a compelling commitment in the performances, and the sound design (Te Aihe Butler) and lighting design (Jason Longstaff) are dynamic and dramatic too.
Theatre that does not communicate misses its point, however, and both Charles L Mee’s version and this production rob the audience of the opportunity to fully engage with the timeless and universal dimensions that give The Bacchae its classic status.
Copyright © in the review belongs to the reviewer