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Birtwistle's music is scored for just oboist, clarinettist, percussionist and keyboard player (joint music directors Nikola Kodjabashia and Kawai Shiu double in the last two roles, making four percussionists in all). For all the permutations that produced, the music seemed slightly apologetic. Yet Birtwistle timed all the key moments right -- witness the oboe-led 'Sweet river of Spring' chorus, syncopated clip-clops, or black whisperings (almost like a tuba) beneath the Messenger speech. Hall uses not only 'prosopa' -- masks (as he has elsewhere in Greek Tragedy) -- but the same three actors, doubling all the principal roles in the Greek manner. Thus the bewitching Greg Hicks -- Peter Hall's erstwhile Orestes, Tiresias (in Sophocles) and, most recently, Tantalus -- 'trebles' as the vengeful God, the blind seer Tiresias (the one comic scene, cavorting with David Ryall's bedecked, cavorting Cadmus) and -- perhaps most impressively of all -- the Messenger who reports the offstage horrors, teasing out his tale to ominous woodwind in thirds, and engaging specific mannerisms for each character like eerie Leitmotifs. This Dionysus wavers and quivers like a sensual reed; no wonder young Pentheus is transfixed.

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

As news seeps back of the Maenad women's bloody doings, Pentheus (his name in Greek means, more or less, 'grief'), his interest not blunted but fired, succumbs to his buried lustful yearnings (rank disorder has now replaced his order fetish) before the chorus, now triumphant, launches into Euripides' great chorus 'Ito dika phaneros' -- 'Go, Justice, forth!' Colin Teevan's translation produces some memorable images ('The world seemed like a bloody abbatoir'; 'like some psychotic army') which rarely cheat on Euripides.

Bacchai. David Ryall and Chorus. Photo: Manuel Harlan, Royal National Theatre

Does Birtwistle produce as memorable musical imagery to match Pentheus's long solitary march up Alison Chitty's accursed (or healing, depending on your view) walkway, or for the explosion and catclysm that splinters the palace? Well no, actually -- but then Hall himself misses one key opportunity, having Dionysus emerge not from the opened chasm of his splintered prison, but lamely (for a second time) through the audience.

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Copyright © 7 June 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

 

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