Bread and Roses Theatre
Reviewed – 17th September 2019
“a beautifully pared down version of this ancient play”
Euripides’ classic tragedy is best understood by modern audiences as a story about intergenerational jealousy between sisters and their offspring, and how it brings down the wrath of the gods on their disrespectful heads. The Bacchae is about so much more of course, including how a mother can be driven into such an ecstatic state by divine power that she unwittingly kills her own child. Originally produced in 405 BC in Athens, The Bacchae won first prize at the City Dionysia play festival, and has continued to be one of the most highly regarded Greek tragedies ever since, despite the difficulty of the subject matter. It is not just the beauty of the language that sets it apart, but unusual features such as bringing the god Dionysus on stage as a fully realised character and, indeed, as the protagonist. Esmond Road Productions, under the direction of Maria Makenna, and produced by Erica Martin, has revived this play and adapted it for an all-female/non-binary cast for the explicit purpose of offering more opportunities for actresses in traditionally all-male cast plays. So how well does that approach work for an ancient classic like The Bacchae?
The small and intimate space above the Bread and Roses pub in North Clapham actually works quite well for a play that was originally designed to be performed, in masks, outdoors, to an audience of up to 15,000 people. The ensemble cast of six do use attractive, neon-coloured masks (designed by Steve Wintercroft) when playing members of the Chorus, but sensibly discard them for the roles of the main characters. In a darkened space, with a minimal set, the cast provide everything else, from Euripides’ words spoken with clarity and understanding, to the singing of the Chorus. This is a production that is true to the spirit of Euripides, even if performed in a time where the Greeks gods have long since vanished. Even so, the pace of The Bacchae will still seem slow to modern audiences simply because of the long descriptive passages where one character explains to others what has occurred off stage. But this feature, paradoxically, allows director Makenna’s choice of giving all roles, male and female, to actresses, a workable one, because of the focus on the words. The actions of the performers are necessarily pared down in such a small performance space. The only moment in the drama where this works less well is when Dionysus’ cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes, is tricked into dressing as a woman in order to spy on his mother and aunts in their divinely inspired frenzy. Daniella Piper, who plays Pentheus, is already smartly dressed as a modern female executive, so this transformation lacks the dramatic revelation that Euripides intended.
Esmond Road Productions has taken on an ambitious challenge with this version of The Bacchae, and it’s good to see the cast, for the most part, manage the complex language so competently. Erica Martin, as Dionysus, gives an assertive performance, ably supported by Anna Carfora as Kadmos, Helen Wingrave as Teiresias, Chantelle Micallef Grimaud as Agave, and Merete Wells as Agafya. If you are interested in seeing a show that allows you to focus on a beautifully pared down version of this ancient play, then take a trip to the Bread and Roses pub theatre to see this production.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Maria Makenna
Bread and Roses Theatre until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue: