Classic as pantomime
This article is from 2007.
There have been many and varied interpretations of Euripedes’ classic over the years. There’s the conventional reading, contrasting the straight-laced and controlling personality against the sensual hedonist (witness the various productions of the 90s which pitted the e-loving raver against the policeman) or the psychoanalytic interpretation, seeing the central characters as halves of a divided self, with pleasure and reality principles doing battle. These are just two means of producing the text among many. What is confirmed by John Tiffany’s production of David Greig’s text is that it doesn’t work as panto.
From the moment of Alan Cumming’s entrance, lowered upside down, bottom exposed, from the flies, there’s no dearth of camp to his Dionysus. As he exchanges simpers and winks with his audience, he allows for plenty of humour in our response to his sexual and social ambivalence. It’s a good performance in the wrong play, though, since, in distancing himself so profoundly from anything recognisably human we feel none of the perilous empathy for his sensualist that you might expect. So too, in Tony Curran’s Pentheus there’s a common or garden office tyrant, repressed, as we might expect, but so much so that he seems no more real than his eyelash batting luvvie nemesis. It’s not that these characters need to be naturalistic, but there should to be enough of the human for us to feel the tragedy of the dénouement.
As it is, after some amazing tricks with smoke and mirrors, and splendid theatrical effects, including a wall of fire which is the only thing likely to make this a hot ticket, there’s no real feeling in the bank for Paola Dionisotti’s grieving Agave at the close. So too, while Greig’s text contains many scattered ideas, from the right of women to their own bodies to the rather contemporary danger of administrations with random powers of arrest, nothing is really picked up enough not to be buried in the furious cacophony.
There are, though, some compensations, particularly in the form of the ten Maenads, a kind of sexy crimson clad female gospel choir, fleet of foot and strong of voice. For all that, unless you like gawping at movie stars on stage, or a lot of colour and noise, you won’t go back. Aye, and you’ll see a better panto at the King’s come Christmas.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, until 18 Aug, 8pm, mat 15 & 18, 2.30pm, £8–£30.