Where to start with this one? There’s so much about the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’ tragedy, The Bacchae, to get excited about. For one thing it’s directed by John Tiffany, the man behind the much-acclaimed Blackwatch, and it stars Alan Cumming as Dionysus, god of wine and general naughtiness a superb bit of casting.
And in parts, it is a genuinely thrilling piece of theatre but it has an episodic quality that prevents it from being completely satisfying as a whole.
The production, arriving in London fresh from the Edinburgh International Festival and a brief stint in Glasgow, has been adapted for the stage by the prolific David Greig. A miffed Dionysus comes to Thebes to vindicate his mother Semele – and Cumming’s entrance on stage is the first of many visually striking and memorable moments (he descends head-first, hanging from a harness by his feet, bottom on display).
There were other inventive touches. The chorus of Bacchae, for example, are quite wonderful to behold, clad in beautiful feathery red dresses and boasting an amazing range of singing voices between them. They provide the spine of the show, narrating events through song.
This is a show that thrives on specatcle and throughout the interval-less production, Tiffany assaults the audience (literally) with blinding spotlights and sheets of flame – the force of which could certainly be felt where I was, back in row J of the stalls. However a production needs to offer more than pyrotechnic whizz-bangery and Greig’s accessible adaptation ensures that this is the case.
Despite this, the show, for me, failed to hang together in a satisfying manner. Part of the problem is Alan Cumming. He’s an actor I’ve always had difficulty with (I disliked his tic-driven and mannered performance in Bent last year) but he’s well cast here. His look-at-me style is ideal for such a role and his stage presence, and way of communicating with an audience, are such that, when he was off stage the show rather stumbled. This became a particular problem as the show progressed. The sombre scenes with Paola Dionisotti as Agave, the mother of the slain Pentheus, though well-acted, were in such sharp contrast to the earlier melee that a lot of the emotional nuance was lost. The change in tone was too abrupt, the switch from Rocky Horror camp to high tragedy too big a leap.
Alongside Dionisotti, Tony Curran was excellent as Pentheus, throwing off his stern faade to camp it up in a green satin gown when Dionysus tricks him into dressing as a woman. The women of the Bacchae were also splendid, bringing heart and warmth to the production. The Scottish staging drew some griping about audibility but these problems seemed to have been ironed out and the music was clear, the lyrics easy to hear.
However, for all this production’s considerable visual punch, the necessary cohesiveness just wasn’t there and in the end it felt like a collection of startling individual moments rather than a wholly satisfying theatrical experience.