At the Fringe
In the queue for Flying Pig Theatre’s new production of Euripides’ Bacchae, I overheard a man talking to his female companions about the prospect of sitting in the front row: ‘What if there’s audience participation?’ I was reminded of Dionysus in 69, Richard Schechner’s adaptation of the play. In one of its scenes, Schechner writes in Performance Theory:
Dionysus offers Pentheus ‘any woman in this room’. Pentheus says he can have his pick without Dionysus’ help. ‘OK,’ says Dionysus, ‘try it yourself.’ Pentheus is left alone in the centre of the room. Almost every night some woman comes to him and offers help. The scene plays privately between them, and ends with the woman rejecting Pentheus (or the actor playing Pentheus?) and going back to her place. The performance resumes and Pentheus, defeated, is sacrificed. Once it did not happen that way.
William Shephard, who played Pentheus, left the theatre with the woman halfway through the show.
The night I watched the Bacchae in Edinburgh, the audience didn’t participate. Flying Pig Theatre did it all by themselves. The actors sprawled on the floor, the maenads abandoning themselves to their bacchanalia. The ‘innovative use of live sound’ included a cappella singing and whistling; sometimes they rubbed or scratched a bongo drum or rustled a piece of polythene next to a mike. The cast – five men and five women – were dressed in white leggings and flesh-coloured bodices, occasionally slipping something on to distinguish a character from the chorus. Dionysus, played by Sam Liu, had a stylish bolero, to match his elaborate make-up.
Can the Bacchae, with their wine cups and wild music, be described as protofeminists? It may depend on the production. Gilbert Murray’s 1902 translation of the drama calls the followers of Dionysus ‘Inspired Damsels’ and ‘Wild White Women’, ‘dames young and old, and gentle maids unwed’. In the Flying Pig version, by Christopher White, the insulted god – effeminate, politically correct and perfectly cool – promises: ‘Dionysus will strike back.’ Pentheus, the abusive king of Thebes (Jonny Wiles), says to him: ‘You’re a looker, I can say that for you.’
On learning that the women – including his mother, Agave (Rosa Garland) – are dancing in the mountains brandishing thyrsi, Pentheus knits his bushy eyebrows in misogynistic rage. His city is suffering, ‘and all this at the hands of women’. He is loath to put on a woman’s dress, but Dionysus, wishing him dead, tells him it’s best to disguise himself to watch the Bacchic rituals. Pentheus goes in drag and is mistaken for a mountain lion. The women, led by Agave, tear him to pieces. ‘Hunting with my hands,’ she says. ‘Far superior to weaving.’ What if he came to the maenads wearing his own clothes? Would they be more or less cruel to him? Is their violence sexually motivated, or are they just bored of their looms? Do they take up hunting to compete with men? After Agave realises that the creature they have killed is her son, she and her sisters are sent into exile.
When Schechner’s experiment took its unexpected turn, Joan MacIntosh, who played Dionysus that night, told the audience: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight for the first time since the play has been running, Pentheus, a man, has won over Dionysus, the god.’ Looking for traces of a primal ritual in Attic tragedy, Murray suggested that ‘Pentheus is only another form of Dionysus himself’ and that he is essentially resurrected at the end. The Flying Pig version of Bacchae, though open to interpretation, offers little hope for Pentheus at the end. But then, after the performance, it was announced that the actor who played the king would play Dionysus the following night.