Saturday, 25 August 2007

The Bacchae...or The Alan Cumming Show

As a mad emperor (in Babylon 5) once remarked, “Humour is such a subjective thing.” For much of last night’s performance of The Bacchae, indeed from the very opening lines, there was a portion of the audience roaring with laughter. I was not among them.

This production, the flagship of Jonathan Mills’s theatre programme this year, is a clear example of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Mills has followed a McMaster habit (and doubtless one also followed by their predecessors) of poaching a big success from the previous year’s Fringe for the following year’s International Festival. In this case, that poaching consists of the National Theatre of Scotland and the creative team responsible for last year’s smash hit, Black Watch. In a shrewd move to assist the sale of tickets (which it has clearly done), Mills has also lured back Alan Cumming, appearing on the Scottish stage for the first time in years as the unrecognised God, Dionysus.

The enigma of this production comes from trying to explain what happened between these various collaborators in rehearsal, or, to put it another way, is what we see on stage really the full intention of director John Tiffany? This question has to be asked because for much of the time the show more resembles a kind of Alan Cumming stand up act, played fairly blatantly to the gallery, in which the tragedy of Pentheus and Thebes is but a minor element. Clearly Cumming was cast because the production intended to emphasise the sexual ambiguities of Dionysus. He duly plays up to this at every turn. The opening image is his bared bottom as he is lowered to the stage (again I don’t think this adds much to the characterisation but nudity, as previously noted with regards to Poppea, is absolutely de rigour in the modern theatre). He is garbed throughout in a gold lame tunic and rather silly wig. The majority of his lines are delivered knowingly to the audience, starting with his very first one – “So Thebes. I’m back.” The trouble is that the character is much more complex and subtle than this – the sexual hedonist is only one side of him. For instance, Pentheus’s defiance of Dionysus which leads to his doom is dependent on his inability to recognise the God for who he is. But Cumming’s performance shies away from any sense of ambiguity. He is the epitome of camp, a particular type of God resplendent in gold lame and too much make up, who will get his biggest kicks from slinking around on stage, and getting other men into dresses beside him. There’s no real sense of danger or mystery in Cumming’s performance. This undermines the credibility of Pentheus, but it also weakens Dionysus since the words he’s actually speaking suggest so much more. For example, in this version, it’s clear that there’s a burning resentment at Thebes for its treatment of his mother Semele. This explodes in Dionysus’ final monologue, but is hardly visible earlier on, making it less than convincing. Dionysus’s words to Pentheus suggest a presence that is slippery to grasp, but we are never in any doubt that this is the God (or at least the Cumming/Tiffany version of him). And there is one maddening piece of translator’s messing about. When Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress up as a woman to spy on the women the scene becomes a transvestite fantasy. Again, there’s just no subtlety to it. Pentheus simply changes clothes because the text demands it – there’s no real sense of why. Moreover, Dionysus is plotting a terrible revenge, but Cumming is just having a huge joke. The line, “Come out…you know you want to” accompanied by a trademark knowing smile from Cumming garners a laugh, but as with so much of this production, the human dilemma behind it is effectively ignored. It’s another empty effect.

Another disappointing aspect of the production is the treatment of the Chorus. Here they are turned into ten gospel singers in red gowns. I presume that Tiffany’s intention was to capture the religious ecstasy of that musical experience. Properly executed this might have worked, here it is a lamentable failure. Tim Sutton’s score is awful, his performers muster a feeble sound given the number of them on stage, and again it’s all a display – there’s no sense of real emotional power behind it.

But perhaps the worst problem of this production, and one which the National Theatre of Scotland really needs to address if it genuinely wishes to lay claim to a role of cultural leadership in Scotland comparable to that being extremely ably performed by the National Theatre in London, is the basic quality of the acting. Not one of the performers in this company really have a sense of how to deliver the lines – a fact depressingly ignored by most professional critics. The quality of acting was, if anything, down on the Lyceum’s own uneven season. Bluntly, there was nobody to compare with the performances Marianne Eliot recently drew in St Joan, or, if that is to set the bar too high, the National Theatre debut of Ruth Wilson as Tanya in Philistines.

Let me give some examples. Two members of the gospel Chorus have to deliver long monologues describing the horrific scenes of bacchic madness they have witnessed. The best such performances in Greek tragedy make you believe that you’re really there with them, living through those experiences moment by moment. You are compelled to listen however awful it becomes. It should be mesmeric. But their inexperience showed, projection, diction, and pacing were all inadequate. Either they need better training, or better direction – but that level should not be considered acceptable for a National Theatre. Paola Dionisetti has received much praise for her performance as Agave, but here too I found many of the same problems. She paused in bizarre places, she overdid the effects. Just like the chorus, she did not convince. Tony Curran as Pentheus was better, but again there was no subtlety – it seemed that Tiffany had instructed him to shout every line – though this did at least make the text audible. Only Ewan Hooper as Cadmus and Cumming himself really rose towards the heights that such a production ought to obtain. Cadmus was impressive in the final scenes, but undermined by Dionisetti’s over-acting. Cumming however, was the most infuriating of all. Every now and again one caught a glimpse of a completely different Dionysus struggling to get out of the habitual camp, knowing routine. A truly great actor could have silenced those laughs, transformed the audience’s expectations, shocked the audience out of them. Cumming and Tiffany ultimately retreated from the attempt. The result has clearly been good box office, but it is not great theatre worthy of an aspiring National Theatre of Scotland, nor the Edinburgh International Festival. This is a production of effects, symbolised by the explosion of flames, rather than an exploration in depth of the human psyche.

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