Chaos is generally frowned on. Most of us devote a lot of energy to keeping it at bay. We don’t like disorder on our desktop, never mind in our personal lives, and the prospect of a chaotic political system is terrifying. So why is Laurie Sansom celebrating it? This neat, mild-mannered theatre director is set on unleashing pandemonium in the civilised market town of Northampton with a Festival of Chaos, a season of drama at the Royal & Derngate Theatre, in which the spirit of Dionysus, the Greek god of ecstasy, looms large.
“I think we struggle to keep control and order,” says Sansom. “Our attempts to do that, to lock down and have a rigid sense of who we are, can get out of touch with deeply engrained human characteristics. And then it can come out in destructive ways … For me it is about what happens if you deny those parts of yourself.”
He peels open his lunchtime sandwich and lines it with potato crisps, a minor act of hedonistic rebelliousness that seems delightfully appropriate. He’s in the middle of rehearsals for the three plays that will make up the festival: Euripides’ The Bacchae, Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. On paper they make strange bedfellows, each very different in tone and place. But coursing through them, thinks Sansom, are common concerns: a keen awareness of an urgent force beyond human control and a shrewd instinct for the havoc that ensues when repressed desires force their way into the light.
“The Bacchae is very specifically about the forces of chaos, ecstasy and instinct against those of order and civilisation and control,” he says. “But in Blood Wedding the same forces are in conflict. Hedda Gabler is probably the most surprising of the trio. But Hedda has her drunk, orgiastic ex-lover Ejlert Lovborg and talks about him with vine leaves in his hair, which is a reference to Bacchus. And I think the reason she’s so complicated and exciting is because that battle is going on inside her.”
Posters for the season depict a sultry, handsome youth, who stares down provocatively at the onlooker with a gaze that is part seductive, part defiant. This is surely the Dionysus we meet in The Bacchae, outraged at being defied by strict ruler Pentheus, who lures the Theban women into an ecstatic frenzy that turns bloodthirsty. We may no longer characterise that impulse as a capricious deity, but Sansom thinks we all recognise the attraction of recklessness: “You’re scared of it and drawn to it equally.” And while all three plays dramatise personal rebellion, Sansom suggests that there is a broader resonance to an exploration of chaos.
“I think there is a political aspect to it as well,” he says. “The Arab Spring was just kicking off when we started working on The Bacchae. It made us realise how much of it is about popular protest and people power. The Bacchae has become a lot more political than I expected it to be.”
Sansom’s production of Euripides’ ancient tragedy (in a new adaptation by Rosanna Lowe) is set in a contemporary, wealthy city not unlike Dubai, where a riotous underground movement is taking hold. He is quick to point out that it is not a specific setting, neither is this version about the Arab Spring. But it does draw on what we have learnt from those uprisings.
“I think if you repress and try to control people, if freedoms are so curtailed, then it is liable to come back at you tenfold and be destructively expressed,” he says. “Because you can’t lock that part of people away.”
Blood Wedding focuses on a different site of contemporary anxiety. Tommy Murphy’s new translation shifts the drama from 1930s Andalucia to a modern Spain afflicted by economic collapse. Financial insecurity has enforced a retreat to traditional ways of life and triggered all sorts of unfinished business. Chaos is not far away: a sobering thought for a contemporary audience.
I sit in on a Blood Wedding rehearsal, as the cast works over a moment at which destruction begins to peep through the plot. It’s the wedding breakfast and amid the jovial, slightly embarrassing speeches comes one from the bridegroom’s mother that suddenly shifts the mood and hints at the coming disaster. Even rehearsing, Kathryn Pogson, playing the mother, brings a perfect, unhinged quality to her performance that sends a ripple through the room.
Releasing such wells of emotion convincingly on stage is not easy. On the table in the rehearsal room is In Search of Duende, a collection of Lorca’s writings about that mysterious, irrational power, which “climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet”, and which Sansom sees as being kindred to the concept of the Dionysian. And he has sought out actors who are prepared to let rip: to grieve nakedly or dance ecstatically. “On the page this season looks like it could be quite intellectual classical theatre,” he says, “and it’s the opposite.”
Sansom points out that Dionysus and theatre are inextricably linked: in ancient Greece he was the patron of drama and it was at one of the festivals dedicated to him that The Bacchae was first performed. But it is also in drama that his influence can be both celebrated and contained.
“The Bacchae is so much about acting and theatre,” he says. “You’ve got a god who’s the god of theatre … And when you’re making work it’s always ordered chaos. Eventually structure, detail and precision emerge but you need the playful, messy stuff to make something that has real life to it. So even in making theatre you’re balancing those two things.”
We talk about where this exhilarating, disturbing life force might be most clearly spotted in modern plays. Perhaps in Brian Friel’s 1990 Dancing at Lughnasa, in which five sisters in rural Ireland erupt into wild dancing? Or in Jez Butterworth’s 2009 Jerusalem, in which the outlaw Rooster Byron summons the ancient giants in a thrilling, visceral climax?
“Theatre always privileges the dangerous, the sexy, the subversive,” says Sansom. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what we have the most sympathy for intellectually. But it’s what we want to watch. Theatrically – we want it to erupt.”
Festival of Chaos begins on May 18; www.royalandderngate.co.uk