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September 23, 2013 5:57 pm
“Use me, don’t abuse me,” warns Dionysus, swinging from the scaffolding, his glittery purple trousers twinkling under the stage lights. That of course is the problem: human beings tend to have trouble managing their Dionysian urges, which is one reason Euripides’ two-and-a-half-millennia-old tragedy The Bacchae still resonates today. And Ché Walker’s party remix of the story is in essence a great idea: into the original narrative, in which the god takes vicious revenge on Pentheus, the repressive leader of Thebes, Walker mixes examples of addiction, compulsion and psychopathic over-control from the modern world. It’s apt too that this is not a tidy show, but an idiosyncratic, rambling knees-up, presided over by a mischievous supernatural narrator in harem pants and silver slippers (Jonathan Chambers), and driven by Arthur Darvill’s atmospheric funky music.
But while in theory this party-popper of a final show for the Globe’s summer season (and its first musical) should work well, filling the open air space and tempting the standing audience to dance, in practice it proves a hit and miss, oddly muffled and straggly affair. And it doesn’t overcome the challenge for any long and deliberately loose show not to outstay its welcome.
There is some droll and insightful writing from Walker: the vignettes involving two 21st-century junkies trying to care for a puppy are funny, poignant, ultimately very sad, and well delivered by Philip Cumbus and Harry Hepple. He also makes fine use of wild flights of rhetoric and shifts of tone. Matthew Dunster’s staging is led by a flirtatious, enigmatic Dionysus (Tommy Coleman) and peppered with vivid performances – Clifford Samuel’s blunt, misogynist Pentheus among them. When it works, it works very well: there’s a wonderful scene in which Colin Ryan’s repressed soldier finds his inner reveller and strips off to reveal a golden thong. The final anthem has a haunting quality.
But the sprawling nature of the piece pulls against narrative clarity and urgency and it becomes too diffuse for its own good. The deep, strange psychological urges that the story explores are not closely examined, the sense of crazed ecstasy not created, so the wildly violent ending doesn’t hit home. And though the cast work hard, the party atmosphere feels muted: Dionysus’s small band of female followers struggle to be heard over the drum-driven music so the effect is a bit like a rave where someone left the speakers at home. A bold experiment, but sadly not a successful one.
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