Reviews, Stage, Theatre

The Bacchae theatre review (La Mama, Melbourne)

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Rob Reid’s production of The Bacchae (a co-production of Melbourne’s La Mama, and Monash University Student Theatre) at the La Mama Courthouse last month was epic, writes Toby Manderson-Galvin... It was a production,”the likes of which has not appeared in Melbourne, at the very least, in the past couple of decades – but truly, I dare say, ever.*”

The primary driver of this extraordinary performance/happening is that it is nerdy as all heck — which is not to say nerdy as in ‘overly academic’ nor as in ‘trivial’. It’s nerdy like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s nerdy like the documentary-inspired Heart of Darkness adaptation that is Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now. It’s detailed, folksy, and somehow both demanding and accessible.

I’m reliably informed that the text for this nearly five-hour-long work, viewable in either one intense binge session or stretched over two nights — I bunkered down for the full duration — had been developed through improvisation and experimentation over the past six years (six years?!) by writer/director Rob Reid, the final cast (about 40 women and non-binary performers), and scores of other artists and actors. The development itself has become something of an epic myth itself, sitting meta-theatrically – for most audience members – beside the performance proper.

he show’s titular source text is, of course not those six long years, but the Greek myth of the Bacchae. At its core, the show follows the narrative of that cult myth – or in any – case the myth as told by playwright Euripedes in 405BC. This later intersects with parts of Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458BC). And they both intersect with a performance of a fictionalised play set behind-the-scenes of the making of the rather significant adaptation of the myth (significant to Western theatrical canon in any case), called ‘Dionysus in 69’ (staged by Richard Schechner and The Performance Group in 1970).

And, stick with me, it all also intersects with the year 1840 where the ‘Napoleon of Neuroses’, Jean-Martin Charcot, tours a rich, depressed client through his horrendous hysteria treatment facility. Oh, and, you can do this come on, this all also intersects with the well-known story of Charles Manson and the family; as a competing A-plot to the Euripedes’ myth play.

Some of the show is made of found text, some of the story is fictional, some is factual, some is here say, and so, how are you keeping up, so far? Good thing the show has three intervals. You’re barely on the edge of the intricate spider’s web that is Rob Reid’s The Bacchae.

That said. Let’s push on because Old Dead Ancient Greek Dudes, French Dudes, White American Dudes, other White American Dudes, and/or the versions of women they previously represented, presented, and performed on stage / asylums / communes are graciously not the only voices of the work (and how much of the text is Reid’s and how much has come from the performers’ improvisations is not entirely clear either).

One of the great strengths of the work is the unique, kaleidoscopic voices and performances of the 40 strong cast. And as mentioned, there are no men in the cast. Add to that that they’re consistently alienating in their presentation: exactly 40 performers in rehearsal room black attire, replete with their own unaltered accents. Australian cadence and language sits over the top of Ancient Greek military and political disputes, English language and accent on a French doctor, and perhaps most memorably subverted we find a very young and beardless woman in the role of Charles Manson.

It’s a metaphor, so let it wash you if you want. Over you. Around you. Be drowned and reborn. Whatever.

What you get is a production the likes of which has not appeared in Melbourne, at the very least, in the past couple of decades – but truly, I dare say, ever.*

I suppose no-one’s better placed to tell you that than Reid himself, one of Melbourne theatre’s only dedicated historians focussed on work from the ’80s to present day. So, um, Rob if you’ve time… See you in the comments?

A side note: The show repeats a motif about waves. And the ocean. In fact it rather explicitly tells us, repeatedly, to let the whole thing ‘wash over you’. Certainly that is one way to witness the work, but one could as soon drown in the volume of information that it presents, and the work is all the more rewarding if you’ve the time to swim with/through/against the tide/s. It’s a metaphor, so, actually let it wash you if you want. Over you. Around you. Be drowned and reborn. Whatever. Something, something about water. I don’t remember. It went for five hours and was very detailed. And folksy. And with a powerful sense of repetition.

I’m not familiar enough with Reid’s work to situate The Bacchae in the context of his oeuvre, and instead, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times springs to mind, as does Bob Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. Totally different aims and scales of spectacles but there’s a parallel in the kind of communal event that these long form theatre works can accomplish.

Reid is questioning societal structures; hegemonies of race/gender/class/etc, and when those in power are brandishing rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons – this sort of maximalist response is exactly the energising response required.

At times I was totally lost, at others I was wrapped, and sometimes – particularly in the second part – the play text felt more literary than theatrical, relying more on the declamatory than the dramatic. I’d be thrilled to get the whole thing as a recording to re-listen to on my headphones as I go about my shopping / the gym / riding public transport. If the work came with endnotes, I’d be all the more grateful.

Felicity Steele as Charcot is a lightning rod of comedy and violence. She portrayed the doctor with effortless charm and a cool, creeping menace. Ellen Grimshaw as ‘Charcot’s-Next-Victim’ had a stark intensity and sense of the epic – sort of like she’d stepped out of a Christopher Nolan film – coupled with her increasingly exact and brutal comic timing. Freya Pragt was mercurial – appropriately as a dying messenger. Her energy and presence was clearly the work of a performer enjoying and succeeding at their craft. Eleanor Howlett and Peita Collard were performance gold. You could reboot Game of Thrones season 8 with just these two and you’d had a sure fire winner. The capricious Collard a perfect foil to Howlett’s considerable gravity.

Kerith Manderson-Galvin as Schechner functioned as a co-conspirator for the audience. M-G’s sensitive invitations through considered fourth wall breaks and canny improvisations that incorporated both the invented world of the play and the realities of the courthouse (eg. referencing a car alarm that went off in Act One, outside the Courthouse, that seemed like it would never stop).

The durational viewing of the work creates a visual effect not dissimilar from watching a music video clip in ultra-slow motion.

Like I said, there are five or so temporalities at play in The Bacchae – (have I forgotten any? Probably) – sometimes operating discretely from each other, sometimes violently clashing, sometimes bleeding into each other, sometimes – actually there’s probably as many ways they interact with each other as there are worlds. Let’s hazard a guess at about five to the power of five.

Our two core narrative-based temporalities give us, Richard Schechner’s rehearsal room, alive with dramatic games and experiments and anxieties, a diverse collection of experienced and novice actors. Then you’ve got the myth of the Bacchae predominantly a serious historical realism, though occasionally what we thought was real fractures into a rehearsal room – this time with playwright Aeschylus and a cast of seemingly thousands.

We’re asking ourselves what role does myth hold to us? How does it function to tell political narratives? Can myths, or epics, be used to tell modern stories too? Does The Beatles white double-album and the Book of Revelation contain a secret code that instructs you to murder?

So, yes again in another temporality we follow Charles Manson’s life (on a beach, cult mansion, prison cell, etc). In yet another we follow the Charcot and a client. In another the whole company are warring soldiers, ready to die for truth and justice, and probably a god – or maybe this is all taking place in an acid trip from Manson or Schechner or Deleuze and Guattari. So on the one hand that’s the information you’re potentially carrying at any one moment when you’re watching the show.

On the other hand, you have the overwhelming spectacle of the 40-plus bodies in the restricted, if cavernous, La Mama courthouse. The worn, light blue carpet the only set piece, contrasting beautifully with the mass of blackened bodies. This is further highlighted by the careful movement direction of Sarah Macky, and in the durational viewing of the work creates a visual effect not dissimilar from watching a music video clip in ultra-slow motion.

There’s a persistent use of the never-gets-old Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, envoked by the scene titles projected on the back wall, some elaborate others curt, and through the use of the mass of bodies, and their varying levels of skill, age, background etc. The chorus are the show. And then they disappear leaving us with… Nothing. Or they join together to become: Something greater than the sum of its parts. A myth. A legend.

I’ve never read The Bacchae, I’ve never been interested in Manson, I don’t much like The Beatles, and I’m not sure I think protesting war means anything any more. But in Rob Reid’s The Bacchae I’m reminded of everything that is thrilling and everything that’s mind-numbing about them all. About the terrible weight of looking back thousands of years and feeling like we’ve barely progressed five hours. Or maybe it’s five and half.

This production of The Bacchae was at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre from July 10 to 21

NB: the author of this review is the sibling of the actor Kerith Manderson-Galvin so take any compliments with a grain of DNA.

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