The Bacchae review (Melbourne Festival)

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At the beginning of Euripides’ The Bacchae Dionysius appears and tells us who he is and what he is going to do — he has come to Thebes to show Pentheus, the neurotically repressive, life-hating king, the cost of denying his divinity: he will turn the women of the city mad, so they will leave and go wild in the mountains.
At the beginning of this version of The Bacchae, conceived by Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech and brilliantly performed by girls from the teen ensemble of St Martin’s, a teenager (Eve Nixon) comes on and tells us about her morning — trying to sleep in, trying to find something to wear that isn’t too stinky. It isn’t a TV-comedy take-off of a young girl, she isn’t even “sweet”: she talks to us naturally and unself-consciously. Then she says, darkening her tone just a little: “I am Dionysius, son of Zeus. If you don’t believe me, I will punish you”.
That is the last bit of text we hear for a long time. We leave normality by degrees: the stage fills with girls, they sit around on the floor reading books, checking their phones: musicians take their place along the right hand wall — the drummer in particular will play a leading part in the sound design, and there is singing to Kelly Ryall’s music in the minimalist style: a boy soprano (Julian de Marco) comes on, a wading pool comes out and the dancing begins.
You can waste mental energy trying to map tightly what’s in front of you onto Euripides’ text: “Is the girl in the balaclava and the pec-suit with the baseball bat meant to be Pentheus? etc” but this will prove fruitless: it’s an associative, metaphorical revisioning of The Bacchae, less interested in Pentheus, or Tiresias, or the other men of Thebes who fill up the stage and speak about the bacchic goings on that take place elsewhere.
That narrative technique — women described by men– is invoked and challenged here in the only other text-based moment, when a girl sits on a couch and reads the magnificent sequence in which a herdsman (Bridie Noonan) describes his encounter with the maenads up on the mountains, peaceful at first and then running wild, tearing cattle to pieces with their bare hands and stealing children.
The imagery grows ever more extreme and eerie: soon we are looking at a kind of harsh, militarised aerobics routine performed by girls in black bikinis and black baseball caps, their faces masked with stockings and their bodies made up to resemble plastic.
It’s an idea of order and containment, the woman-thing or the woman-machine, the disciplined woman, what rigid Pentheus would prefer the bacchantes to be doing instead of roaming the mountainside beyond all civic control.
When, in an unforgettable coup de theatre the instructor starts to bleed gold, the gold smearing her thighs, we see that women’s bodies can’t be made neat and correct.
We also see the courage and commitment of the performers. It isn’t simply that transgression is represented: that’s not so hard to come by nowadays, on stage or anywhere else. But the act of sitting and watching is part of the transgression: in Euripides’ Pentheus becomes a voyeur who dresses as a woman to spy on the maenads and is torn to pieces by them.
Here the audience are the voyueurs, and the actors are offering themselves to (and challenging and resisting) our gaze. It would only be a copout to sentimentalise these very young, half-grown women by talking about their beauty and vulnerability, though these can’t be denied and are indeed moving.
They are also disturbing. An audience member I spoke to afterwards seemed rattled and said: “It was amazing … but I have daughters that age!” Nor can this performance be made safe, contained, in a feel-good discourse about empowering girls. There is a real sense of risk and limits in the exposure, in the excess. If these maenads don’t actually rip us apart, they certainly get under our skin.
[box]The Bacchae is at Theatre Works, St Kilda, until 24 October. Main image: Carla Tilley. Photos by Pia Johnson.[/box]
Related Story: How I became a teenage girl monster (with help from Euripides)

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