The Bacchae

A review of the production by Actors of Dionysos

by Helen Mccabe and Kathryn Lund

Where is he? To my eyes he is quite invisible.
He is here, at my side. You being a blasphemer cannot see him.


But we in the audience could very clearly see Dionysus at Manchester Grammar School on Tuesday 17th October 2000.

The Actors of Dionysus presented a powerful, direct and alternative production of the Bacchae by Euripides.
The Bacchae is the story of the vengeful god Dionysus "who, though most gentle to mankind can prove a god of terror irresistible" and his crushing punishment on the family that rejected him. First he sends his mother’s sisters mad with his own rites, which are rejected by his cousin, Pentheus, King of Thebes. These rites involve the women leaving their homes and travelling to the mountain of Cithaeron where they hunt wild animals in a frenzy of devotion and wine. Pentheus disapproves of this worship, and refuses to acknowledge Dionysus as the son of Zeus. Dionysus comes to Thebes dressed as a priest and tempts Pentheus to dress up as a woman and spy on the devotees. Dionysus sends his followers mad so that they dismember Pentheus, mistaking him for a lion. The play ends tragically with Agavae (his mother) carrying his head triumphantly into Thebes, and then realising that it is her son’s head that she carries.
David Stuttard’s translation and direction gave a picture of a slightly guilty Dionysus at the end of the play, realising that his revenge had gone too far. This alternative analysis of the original text presented a powerful and even more moving ending as Dionysus realises that his is half mortal as well as half god and it is his own family that he has destroyed.
His choice of Tamsin Shasha in the role was a very effective way of showing Dionysus’ neutrality of gender and allowed him to be powerful as well as feminine. The passion of Tamsin Shasha’s performance engaged the audience from the moment the play began, and her energy throughout the play drove it relentlessly to its tragically inevitable conclusion.
The choreography and the imaginative use of limited stage space focused the audience’s attention on the powerful emotions in the play. David Stuttard’s use of a cage-like set added to the claustrophobia and provided a visual symbol of irrevocable fate and the women’s animal-like madness. It also symbolised the caged Dionysus-like facet of human character which Pentheus denies himself, and which of course, in the end, must explode out hence his savage death ripped apart at the hands of the Bacchae.
The small cast added to the intimacy and simplicity of the setting, and reflected the original way in which the play would have been performed. The use of Chorus members as messengers and other minor parts associated with news of the Bacchic rites gave a powerful feeling of Dionysus’ overwhelming power, and also helped show the confusion in Pentheus’ mind.
The translation of the play into more modern and colloquial English brought the play much closer to the heart and helped to show that many of the ideas in the play are still applicable to modern day life. This, coupled with the intense emotion of the characters, meant that many were close to tears in the final recognition scene as Agavae realised the immensity of what she had done unknowingly.
The end of the play was so traumatic that it left many of the audience stunned and there was a long pause before the strong applause as many felt that clapping was too happy for such a play.
This powerful and evocative journey through the emotions brought to life once more in a superb and modern-day adaptation of Greek Theatre. Stitched into the fabric and the language were echoes of the Golden Age of Greek Tragedy, and the tragedies that face us all in life. Stunned, shocked and mesmerised, we had a fantastic night.

Helen McCabe

Pentheus is ripped apart by the Bacchae.

Kathryn Lund