Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"The Bacchae" - August 2007

A National Theatre of Scotland production, directed by John Tiffany of "Black Watch", adapted by the highly regarded David Greig, and starring Tony award winning Alan Cumming. Does the Guardian run a Fantasy Theatre Competition? Because this would certainly be my entry. Back in reality, "The Bacchae" was everything I'd hoped it would be, but also a little of what I'd feared it might be.

Alan Cumming as Dionysus owns the stage every moment of this production - from his incredible entry to his last curtain call. His performance is electric and pitched absolutely perfectly to the audience. Every look, glance, gesture, and inflection is carefully crafted and never fails to hit the mark. "Star" is an overused term, but few would question Cumming's entitlement to it.

But while it's Cumming that makes the show, he's also responsible for its failings. The scenes without him simply can't compete. It's not a problem with the performances or Greig's writing, it's just that Cumming's performance is so entrancing that you just want him back on stage. In fact the only way I can think to resolve this difficulty is to keep Dionysus on stage watching the scenes and reacting in silence.

Tony Curran as Pentheus gives a hugely enjoyable performance - particularly once he falls for Dionysus' scheme and does well to match Cumming's intensity in many of their shared scenes, however again this leaves some of his moments with other characters feeling flat in comparison.

The chorus of The Bacchae are excellent at times, and you can almost cope with Cumming's absence for periods as they take centre stage with series of musical numbers. There are some great voices in there, but many of the lyrics can be difficult to pick out.

There are additional prices to be paid for Cumming's genius. Much of what we get is phenomenally entertaining and sections are reminiscent of those comedic giants of the Scottish stage - Rikki Fulton & Stanley Baxter. This almost pantomime like tone is a joy to watch, but it's at the expense of some of the themes of the play. We aren't really left considering the conflict between repression and hedonism, or even the dangers of rejection and revenge. The pay offs are all in the performances.

This is a magnificent production but it is a little unbalanced by Cumming's sheer presence, and in trying to avoid him overpowering the show by ensuring he has plenty of offstage time, they have in fact only highlighted how empty it is without him. "The Bacchae" is a truly memorable show, but the memories are all Alan Cumming.

"The Bacchae" runs at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow until 1st September and then at the Lyric, Hammersmith from 5th to 22nd September.

Photo by Richard Campbell.

5 Heckles

Anonymous said...

Among the worst nights at the theatre I have ever experienced. Surely if you want to turn the Bacchae into a musical it might be an idea to cast actors who can actually sing, or hire a composer who can write a memorable tune (I defy you to recall a single song from the show). Cumming's performance was, for me, excruciating rather than entrancing, his nudge-nudge, wink-wink style more suited to an episode of 'Are You Being Served' than a Greek tragedy. It was only when Paola Dionisotti appeared that it took on the drama and emotional depth it needed from the outset. An appalling production of a muddled mess of a play.

Waldorf said...

I can understand your viewpoint. I think Cumming's performance was a love or hate one. We personally loved the OTT-ness of it all, but I can see how it could irritate. Going by the reactions on the night I think you're in the minority, but you're probably not alone in you views.

Again the main problem we had with the music was the complete inability to actually make out what was being sung in a lot of the chorus numbers. This was due to a combination of the levels between the vocalists and the instruments, and the vocalists sounding 'muffled' (possibly due to their mics). The more memorable contribution of the chorus was the 'earthquake dance'.

Interval Drinks said...

I'm seeing this tonight and am quite excited about it. Though I was very underwhelmed by Alan Cumming's performance style in Rent, I am more than willing to be won over!

Waldorf said...

Look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Interval Drinks said...

Well, I'm still not convinced that about Cumming as an actor, but I do concede he has bucketloads of charisma and knows how to work the stage. It certainly sagged when he was absent. The flames were a bit of shock though!