Bakkhai. Written by Euripides. Translated by Anne Carson. Directed by Jillian Keiley. Scenic Design: Shawn Kerwin. Lighting Design: Cimmeron Meyer. Composer: Veda Hille. Sound Design Don Ellis. Music Director: Shelley Hanson. Major Actors: Graham Abbey. Nigel Bennett. Mac Fyfe. Gordon S. Miller. Lucy Peacock. Produced at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. Playing June through October 2017.
A raised red mouth, centre stage, is the bright, bloody platform around which a wild story of women rages. This vaginal design announces intention. You anticipate a feminist Bakkhai. And you hope it is not too hysterical. Program notes research the history of rape, ask who owns a woman’s orgasm, warn of patriarchy in crisis.
Happily, director Jillian Keiley recognizes the play as public dream (Joseph Campbell’s definition of myth), admitting that “when we tried to force the play into definitive meaning,” whether about religion or women’s rights (an interpretation roundly opposed by translator and poet, Anne Carson), it did not work. Rather, this Bakkhai is allowed to dream its own dream, interpretation belonging to each watcher, under the hypnotic spell of performance.
First to slither onstage is “the stranger from Lydia,” a perfect androgen, the god in human form, Dionysos (also called Bakkhos)—variously ecstasy, instinct, libido, wine and unbridled good times, though easily tipped into violence and madness. He is a daimon in Carson’s version and this element adds a trickster aspect to his nature, one that manipulates human beings, driving them into both positive and negative excesses. Actor Mac Fyfe’s god in disguise is a sinewy chameleon, wily and seductively bisexual, with controlled swagger and muted strength. As befits a deity on earth, his power is electric, light or lightning, it can nourish or kill in a flash.
He argues that Pentheus, King of Thebes, does not acknowledge him or his followers, the Bakkhai; that Pentheus denies he is born of the god Zeus and the woman Semele, daughter of Kadmos, founder of Thebes. What complicates matters here is that the god’s birth happened twice. When Semele looked upon the undisguised divinity of Zeus (a serious transgression in the myth), she was instantly incinerated with one of his thunderbolts. However, he managed to save his divine son by snatching him from her womb and inserting the fetus into his own thigh, thereby completing his child’s gestation as a god.
Is Dionysos human or divine . . . or both? This urgent birther question animates the play. Trying to sort it out, Stratford’s Bakkhai writhes through the labyrinthine contradictions of all self-respecting myth.
One of the spectacular successes of the Stratford production is the chorus. So often in contemporary mountings of Greek classics, and especially in reading these plays, the chorus serves merely to explain and provide background. It is reduced to filler on the page or dead time on the stage, despite the importance of what it is doing. The active life of the chorus in Greek drama—its animated music and dance, its colour and energy—are often forgotten, muted and diminished, usually through a reverential attention to text.
Stratford’s Bakkhai—a diaphanous flow of merging blues, reds and greens—whirl into throbbing rhythms, wielding their thyrsi, the long pine cone rods of divine following. The very enablers of dramatic action, they embody the power of the female tribe in strong choreographed moves.
Soft and sensuous in dappled light they skip towards Agave (mother of Pentheus), adore and adorn her, in hypnotic poses, seething with pleasure, kissing each other, lilting irresistibly, declaring green is good and nature is sexy.
In shorts and dark glasses Tiresias, the prophet—old and blind and, so often in classical drama, the bringer of bad news—comes staggering in drunk, chirping to his companion Kadmos, “You’re as young as you feel.” Both of them jauntily sport their version of Bakkhic fashion: animal skins over T-shirts and leafy headgear, prompting Pentheus, “the suit,” to remark “Grandfather, you look like a lampshade.”
The production takes its sardonic tone from Anne Carson’s translation. Renowned classicist and cutting edge Canadian poet, she performs a balancing act, prancing her Bakkhai adroitly on the borders between satire and desire. In the choral odes, she is poetically dazzling. Occasionally, she goes too quickly for the laugh and risks tumbling into farce, thereby diluting the play’s deeper struggle between reason and passion.
Tiresius and Kadmos are true believers, insisting they will dance for Dionysos because it is the right thing to do. And they are much more fun than the humorless Pentheus, played too narrowly by Gordon S. Miller, too stereotypically cold, efficient and fussily dictatorial: Mr. State Control. Nevertheless, he does snap out some of the slickest humor in Carson’s translation. Referring to rumors of the disruptive activity that threatens to undermine all good order and traditional feminine function, he complains “there’s a lot of wine involved and creeping off into corners with men . . . they call themselves a prayer group.”
Here, Carson gets too clever with the original. To call the Bakkhai a prayer group when we are really talking of priestesses is to invoke both esoteric New Age extravagances and/or right wing fanaticism. Certainly, Tiresius and Kadmos are not convinced. “Dionysos is going to be big,” they enthuse, citing Bakkhic states of mind, how when the god enters your body, you hear the future.
The translation now streamlines language, warning the elders that you do not mess around with Dionysian power. Pentheus dismisses them with an airy “Go play your Bakkhic burlesque.” The two wise and joyful old men think he is unhinged. By contrast, the chorus exudes, in welcoming song, how Dionysos is a being of miracles, how smiling women flock to his mountain retreat.
A lot happens in quick succession. Pentheus attempts to capture the stranger from Lydia who warns him of disaster. Drums thunder, as the Bakkhai—lit red and shaking in ecstasy—receive Dionysos down from Olympus, while a herdsman reports to Pentheus of rampages in the hills. Led by Agave, the aroused women—their hair in flames that do not burn—have slaughtered cattle, suckled wolf cubs. Such news motivates Pentheus to save the Bakkhai. The stranger from Lydia (Dionysos in disguise) tries to calm him. “Take a breath Pentheus . . . in through the nose. . . . You listen but do not hear.” Bland as a therapist, he admonishes the neurotic little ruler, in an instance of Carson’s text at its best, ironically energized, casually funny.
Camouflaging himself as a woman to spy on Bakkhic doings, Pentheus is thrilled but worried he will be mocked. The transformation is an erotic transgendered moment of dramatic daring and barely suppressed snickering—especially when the Lydian stranger slickly nips under the king’s long dress to whip off his shorts—all performed to the heavy breathing of the chorus, intoning lasciviously, “Who does not love this feeling. . . .”
Pentheus recognizes Dionysos in his terrible power. The Bakkhai spin and bang their thyrsi, music driving relentlessly. All is raw and blunt and ominous.
Trapped in his dreadful error, exposed to the Bakkhai, Pentheus falls from a giant pine, yelping and sobbing into their fury. Agave, deranged by Bakkhos, launches herself first, ripping her son’s arm. Then, the Bakkhai attack, tearing him limb from limb, eventually playing ball with his body parts. Agave picks up the bodiless head, a victory trophy in her hands.
Bitter and relentless, the chorus chant, “We dance for Bakkhos. We dance for death.”
These outrages are all reported. What is not reported is the impossible grief in which Agave and Kadmos are immersed. What should be painfully suggested is too literally enacted: the mother with her son’s head only recognized as the god’s spell wears off and we return to modern dress. Agave strips down to tight spandex tube and heels, as restricted in fact and vision as her dead son.
Triumphant, Dionysos condemns the unbelievers to wander the world as snakes, symbolically reinforcing his message that the powers of nature must not be rejected, nor basic instincts buried; that enlightenment comes with a balanced life reinforced by beneficent gods.
*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning theatre and literary critic, novelist and poet based in Canada. Her most recent books are the novel One Man Dancing, based on the history of the Abafumi company of Uganda and a collection of poetry and dialogues called Orpheus in Our World, based on some of the earliest Greek hymns to elemental forces. She teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Toronto’s York University.