Monday 15 July 2019

The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2) - Theatre Review

What: The Bacchae (Parts 1 & 2)
When: 10 - 21 July 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and directed by: Robert Reid
Musical direction by: Kelly Wilson
Performed by: Zainab Abdul, MelanieBeddie, Casey Bohan, Georgina Bright, Madeleine Brown, Peita Collard, Amanda Dhammanarachchi, Elena Fanaratis, Mia Fine, Jess Gonzalves, Ellen Grimshaw, Caitlin Harry, Jessica Hayden, Eleanor Howlett, Tijen Inmak, Sharon Kershaw, Baria Khan, Carissa Lee, Gillian Lee, Audrey Li, Gemma Livingstone, Tess Luminati, Ellen Ma, Celina Mack, Kerith Sefton, Manderson-Galvin, Bianca Montagner, Roxana Paun-Trifan, Freya Pragt, Yoni Prior, Chelsea Rabl, Xanthe Shamita Sivabaian, Felicity Steele, Alice Stewart, G Ulrich, and Kathryn Yates
Set by: Jason Lehane
Stage Managed by: Caitie Murphy
Chelsea Rabl and Chorus - photo by Aleks Corke
I knew I was in for a long haul when I decided to see both Parts 1 and 2 of The Bacchae at La Mama on the same day but to be honest, I was not expecting it to be the endurance test it was. Framed by the Euripides play of the the same name, Reid has interwoven 20th century American history through the loom built by the Ancient Greeks.

Billed as a "fierce retellling" of partriarchal story telling, around forty women were meant to take centre stage in a Schechnerian performance of reclamation. There is truly a stage full of women, but there is no reclamation in this particular set of performances. These women are merely playing men and telling the stories of men - from Aeschylus (Manderson-Galvin) and Pentheus (Howlett) to Charles Manson (Lee), the SLA and Schechner (Manderson-Galvin) himself.

In theory, and using the deconstructed theatre methods you will most likely associate with companies such as The Wooster Group (the heir to Schechner's The Performance Group), Reid has woven the characters and story lines of famous 20th century acts of revolt - most of which have been led by men but have dragged women (the bacchae to their Dionysus) to their doom. Given the venue - the Courthouse theatre - there was no ability to engage with Schechner's ideas on environmental theatre (which is basically an ethos which says put the audience inside the set), Reid has gone back a few steps and presents The Bacchae as Poor Theatre which the size of the cast probably demands.

One comment I will make is Poor Theatre strips away all of theatre's excesses but it does not mean throw away all sense of aesthetic and unfortunately The Bacchae does exactly that. Barely one synapse seems to have been expended on the concept that everything on stage is a sign or symbol and points to something.

There is blue canvas on the floor and I can only think it is so the Chorus stand out in their theatre school black outfits but I could find no further relevance. There is something to be said for the uniformity of the blacks but this is completely countermanded by the lack of consistency of style or the use (or lack there of) of makeup. I then find myself thinking why bother with the concept of house lights if the show is just a open white wash? I do admit, the boredom and disappointment of this was probably emphasised because I had to endure it over 4 hours (not including the long dinner break between Parts 1 & 2).

Before I go further I want to say I was very impressed with all of the performers. I can't possibly speak to everybody in this review but I can say Howlett was an incredibly strong and powerful Pentheus, Manderson-Galvin had the Schechner hand gestures down pat, Beddie was a fiery Fury, and Lee was an oddly intriguing Manson. All of the chorus - when they had individual lines and cameos - commanded their words and space, and there was almost no flagging of energy from the first moment of Part 1 at 5pm to the final moment of Part 2 close to 11pm regardless of the disparities in acting traning and experience.

As good as they were though, the faults in this work are myriad and fall to both the construction/dramaturgy and the direction. Deconstructed theatre is becoming a bit old hat now and even Schechner himself has said he could see a time when "performance is" will constrict back from the anything goes era he emerged into and helped define. I think we are there now.

Everything about this production seemed outdated to me. The place for Poor Theatre is questionable now with technologies and skills so available and low cost. The shock and awe of juxtaposing old stories with modern events has now been incorporated into modern writing and directing and has much more sophistication and affect than before. Collage is one of those techniques which evolved in the modernist era. It took Post Modernism to bring it to the stage but now we enter the Post Truth era and its time feels like it is done now.

Regardless of style I question why I should even care about the subjects presented in this play. From the Ancient Greeks to the 20th Century Americans - what does this have to do with me today in Australia? Reid's history of writings shows he does have a fascination with America but I really don't care. There is so much of the world and history to choose from - especially our own. Why do we need to rehash Manson and Patty Hearst and the anti-Vietnam protests in Ohio?

The fact that I am asking these questions is less a demonstration of my lack of awareness and more of an indication in the gaping hole in the dramaturgy of The Bacchae. I am a woman. I should care about this play, but I just don't.

Unfortunately Reid's direction doesn't save it either. The pace of the whole four hours plods along like an annoying metronome set to 4/4 time. The collage is stuck together with sticky tape but the ends don't meet and there are a lot of places where someone spilled water on the page and all of the words run into each other so that meaning is lost rather than heightened.

The text is entirely expository. You could be forgiven for thinking The Bacchae is a lecture rather than a play/performance. I have always been a fan of a bit of exposition, but I do like a bit of dramatic action in between. Can you believe I just said that???

Riffing off Schechner's Dionysis in 69, I guess I expected a lot from The Bacchae. It was probably never going to live up to my expectations. What I didn't expect was such a clear illustration of how theatre has moved on from these celebrated techniques of the 20th Century. Just as the source material is foreign and from the past, so are the performance tools used in this production.

2 Stars

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