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Pentheus's political yearnings have distinct Fascistic tendencies, which only a few weedily black-garbed guards suggested in Hall's new (though attractively old-style) production; but what did emerge was Pentheus's extreme vulnerability, his overwhelming curiosity, amounting to prurience, and his suggestibility (all arguably stem from his youthfulness). The set piece exchanges where Dionysus, having dramatically escaped (by generating an earthquake) from prison, manipulates his victim -- each cousin is, in a sense, the other's Doppelgänger, a Jungian opposite or alter ego -- are among the subtlest in all Greek tragedy, rivalling, for psychological insight, Shakespeare or Ibsen. Of the tragic outcome, more later.

Bacchai. William Houston, Greg Hicks and Chorus. Photo: Manuel Harlan, Royal National Theatre

Supplying music for Greek plays was all the rage at the turn of last century. Vaughan Williams had a go; so did Parry and Stanford; Gilbert Murray's racy translations fired a host of eager executants. Perhaps the most successful recent attempts in England have been the classical Greek tragedies enacted every three years, to (invariably) superbly chanted chorus monodies, at Bradfield College, near the Thames in Berkshire. Nobody knows exactly what they (the chorus) actually sang -- or declaimed -- at the Attic originals, presented during the Great Dionysia Festival in the open-air theatre behind the Athenian Acropolis, but the choruses, sourced by vivid, shifting metric patterns, were arguably a good deal more varied than Hall (who sees the speaking as being shared among individuals rather than communally chanted) and Birtwistle opted to make them.

Bacchai. The Chorus. Photo: Royal National Theatre

What of Birtwistle's music? This Bacchai scored, if anywhere, by understatement : of its power, there was no doubt. The musical interjections originated, by deliberate plan, in improvisational experiments with the players. In part Birtwistle's almost pointillist resulting score proved a real bonus, subtly and subliminally underscoring the text at specific moments, with fine colourings of whispering clarinet (Alan Hacker), shush-shushing percussion, a sad, solitary drum, or eerie oboe (Belinda Sykes). If the word 'minimalist' has any meaning, it might be applied here : it was a 'minimal' score, which said either a lot in a little or, possibly, not very much in a little.

To a degree it complemented Peter Mumford's excellent lighting 'score' (unmuddied reds and greens, plus one striking moment of purple as Pentheus's royal palace implodes) and Alison Chitty's simple, saucerlike rounded set, like an angled Greek 'orchestra' (the word meant round dancing floor), with a plain walkway at the rear up which Pentheus sidles his way to his end : a path, one senses, leading to some nebulous 'out there' -- dangerous, untested and uncontrollable.

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Copyright © 7 June 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

 

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