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David Greig thinks his translation of Euripides’ The Bacchae is an ephemeral piece of work. I reckon there are a few years left in it yet. His text, rarely for Greek translations, is immensely playable, and playful, the latter element highlighted by Alan Cumming’s return to the Scottish stage after 16 years, in the role of Dionysus. His characteristic irresistible smirk is hardly ever absent, as the god of intoxication and frenzy wreaks his revenge on the ruling family of Thebes, where his mother died unmourned.
After being flown in, upside-down cruciform, suspended by his ankles, his golden kilt leaving his bare arse on show, Cumming’s god explains that he has taken human form to avoid dazzling us, but was uncertain as to gender: “Man …woman …it was a close-run thing,” he teases. Later, when Miriam Buether’s otherwise conservative-seeming set has burst briefly into twin sheets of real flame, Dionysus asks mock-solicitously: “Too much?”
John Tiffany’s productions for the National Theatre of Scotland are getting into the habit of causing Edinburgh sensations; last year Black Watch on the Fringe, now this opening theatre offering in the International Festival. It is an exuberant staging, but not in a gratuitous, director’s-theatre way. Tiffany and Greig have taken seriously the notion that the choric sections of Greek drama should be sung and danced but, realising that solemn “authenticity” would be wildly inappropriate, they turn the show into what is in effect the Dionysus Rhythm, Blues & Soul Revue, with a 10-strong black female chorus serving as a bacchic version of the Ikettes. It hits exactly the right note of spiritual transport.
Tony Curran, as the god’s chief persecutor King Pentheus, is a little pale beside Cumming, but who would not be? What Curran does hit is the king’s sexual repression, liberated when Dionysus dresses him in a green evening dress and tiara to go disguised to the bacchantes’ offstage revels, where he is unmasked and torn to pieces. It is down to Paola Dionisotti as Pentheus’s mother Agave to turn the mood to tragic. When Agave’s ecstasy lifts and she realises that what she holds triumphantly is the head not of a lion she has killed but of her own son, Dionisotti’s face crumples into itself like that of an exceptionally dignified foam puppet. Jonathan Mills’ tenure as director of the International Festival could hardly have got off to a better theatrical start.
Greig, meanwhile, is ubiquitous this year, with a brace of plays also appearing at the Traverse. Yellow Moon, which the young people’s company Tag Theatre toured around Scotland last year, is a kind of modern-day young Scots’ Bonnie and Clyde tale. It is subtitled The Ballad of Leila and Lee, and cites the traditional American murder ballad Stagger Lee. As so often with Greig, contradictions are at the heart of characters’ drive, as the teenage couple try simultaneously to escape and to find a place of belonging, both individually and together.
Damascus, a new work staged by the Traverse’s own company, follows a Scots English-for-speakers-of- other-languages textbook writer through a brief but seismic stay in the Syrian capital, and arises from Greig’s several years of work with Middle Eastern writers. It is much more pinned to specific places and times than is usual for this resonantly allusive playwright. Some have also found it wordy rather than substantial, but to me it simply demonstrates, as always in Greig’s work, that characters think as well as feel. (Indeed, this is the downfall of Paul Higgins’ protagonist here.) Greig always pays full respect to thought, but without exalting or aggrandising either himself or the activity. We all do it, after all.
Edinburgh International Festival
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Traverse Theatre Tel 131 228 1404