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<<  -- 4 --  Roderic Dunnett    POWER OF UNDERSTATEMENT

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The subterranean, arcane urges lurking within the young king are not fully exploited in the famous 'dressing up' scene, either (an integral part of earliest Greek Drama); rather, that scene relies overmuch on word and on Hicks's sinuous, though by now repetive, feminising gestures as the tempter (with his long doll-like curls, virtually a seductress).

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

Jung, Freud and The Golden Bough would all have had something to say here : the weakness lay, seemingly, in Hall's slight underdirection in this scene of Pentheus (William Houston, a superb RSC and National Theatre rising star, recently seen as an unforgettable Henry V).

By contrast, no such problem affected Houston (i.e.the same actor) as Agave, the murdered king's mother and -- tragically -- murderess (as she says, when her eyes finally focus: 'I am both the wrongdoer and the wronged : I have killed a part of myself'). Hall holds Houston in a fixed stare, forward-facing; the empty eyes of the deliberately enigmatic mask (a triumph for maskmaker Vikki Hallam), with the gamut of mixed emotions it suggests, or omits to suggest, acquires vastly more character than a human face itself.

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

Houston's Agave, soaked by slaughtered animals' and her son's blood, looks like a butcher's carcass. Dramatic irony was never finer than this. Here Birtwistle scores too, with sinuous whispers of low (or bass) clarinet and drum, and -- a brilliant touch at a key moment -- shifting, quietly pounding thirds which suddenly (and almost subliminally) alter key at the precise moment of recognition : no longer 'What have I to grieve for?' but 'ea, ti leusso? ti pheromai tod'en kheroin? Horo megiston algos he talain'ego.' ('Aargh! What do I behold? What bear I in these hands? Alas, wretch that I am, I perceive a mighty grief'), patiently teased from her by the now no longer comic but grieving, long-suffering Cadmus. The music continues on a high : unnerving clarinet minor ninths, later backed by staccato drum; and strange, no less unnerving clarinet cadenza towards the close; a sad elegy on the rags that remain of kingship.

Copyright © 7 June 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK

 

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