Review – The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012

The BacchaeAn underground car park – pillars, electrical mountings, side offices, a lift shaft, and a bashed up abandoned old car. Walk through that innocuous looking door at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo old print works and you enter a surprising world. A world where security CCTV systems maintain a regime headed by a spoilt king with a manipulative mother, protected by a Head of Security who can instantly summon a line of hard riot cops to intimidate and overthrow any attempts to subvert the system; but where a new cult frenzy is spreading that has caused all the women of the city to abandon their homes and run freely in the hills, thereby gaining superhuman strength; a fervour whipped up to such an extent that people simply do not know what they are doing but become overpowered by the lure of Dionysus and all he represents.

Alicia DaviesThis modern version of Euripides’ The Bacchae adapted by Rosanna Lowe and directed by Laurie Sansom is presented by the Royal and Derngate as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London Festival 2012 along with their production of Blood Wedding, with which it plays in repertory. I’m sadly ignorant about ancient Greek drama on the whole, so we thought it would be a good idea to attend the talk “Suppressing the Urge” that took place at the theatre before the performance. Professor Chris Carey is meant to know his stuff; we thought he’d give us a good introduction to the play; and in any case, he’s Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle, so it would have been rude not to go! It was a very amusing and informative talk – and definitely gave us some pointers to watch out for when we saw the play later on.

Kathryn PogsonI’d seen the production photographs for the Bacchae and they did make it look exciting, but nothing quite prepares you for the astonishing way this production fills this disused industrial space. Takis’ design is one of the most exhilarating adaptations of a space I have ever seen. It’s not warm; it’s not cosy; it’s harsh and hostile. It’s the perfect setting for this smart, highly modern, zippy version of the Bacchae, sacrificing some of the beauty – and rightly so I believe – of the original Greek poetry for convincing hard-hitting modern idiom. There are scenes of comedy and tragedy; music songs and chants; some buttock-clenchingly unsettling discomfort; and some no-holds barred horror that will make you swear to vegetarianism for the rest of your life.

Liam Bergin This production tells its age-old story magnificently well and leaves you with some outstandingly memorable mental images that are hard to shake off even after a few days. It’s also full of extraordinary performances. The company works hard to achieve fine drama in Blood Wedding but here you somehow feel they enjoy themselves much more – energy, intensity and a sparkiness in their performances simply crackle with delight with apparent effortlessness. When it comes to Chaos, Euripides trumps Lorca’s ace. It flows freely from its central character and occupies the landscape and all its inhabitants. Expect the unexpected, as Dionysus warns us on his surprise first entrance. He’s everywhere and he’s got a lot to answer to.

Ery NzarambaAfter Dionysus has introduced us to his world, and revealed the shrine to his mother Semele, his followers, the Bacchantes appear and use the car park as their base to plot, to worship, to avenge and to plunge the world further into chaos. The acoustics mean you hear absolutely everything clear as a bell, which suits their challenging and aggressive alarums and excursions. They make a really effective chorus. I particularly loved the show-stopping number led by Alicia Davies in fine form, but they were all excellent and linked scenes together with great pace and menace.

Robert BenfieldThere were two remarkable scenes in the play that for me expressed the special degree of trust between the actors that you always get with a Laurie Sansom production. Pentheus’ mother, Agave, played by Kathryn Pogson, quickly becomes entranced by the Bacchantes when she comes down to the basement to see what all the fuss is about. The spirit of Dionysus quickly embeds itself in her and what started as a confrontation becomes a dreamlike dance of rapture, where she is passed from follower to follower, sailing through the air on an enveloping wave of bliss. It’s a beautiful, balletic sequence, and showed fantastically well how the Bacchantes assimilated Agave. It’s also a great symbol for what Dionysus can be, as this beautiful, calm dance sets in motion Agave’s murder of her own son – you can’t get sharper contrasts. The gruesome scene where she slowly realises what she has done, bringing in Pentheus’ flayed head that she is devouring with hedonistic pleasure, is a gripping performance. The horror of realisation fills in to her face, even while she is still chomping on a bit of son, and her subsequent agonised remorse is one of those moments you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jim BywaterPentheus is played by Liam Bergin as a sharp-suited spoilt Mummy’s boy of a king, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing that can overcome Dionysus’ hold. He gives a good account of petulant annoyance at the security lapses and his fury that Dionysus has escaped imprisonment is real and tangible. He may bark angry threats and try to preserve his whining authority but you know from the start he is doomed. Ery Nzaramba’s Dionysus has an electrifying presence, a manipulating god from the start – you even feel uncomfortable in the opening and closing scenes when he is addressing the audience in case he somehow gets into you too. His voice encompasses power, influence and cheekiness. He teases, he cajoles, he mocks; he won’t be silenced. His scene with Pentheus where he undresses the king so he can change his appearance to spy on the women is another of those extraordinary trust-between-actor moments. Mr Nzaramba is calm and controlling, deceptively supportive and encouraging; Mr Bergin’s face portrays the point where agony and ecstasy meet, sweating buckets in intense vulnerability. A creepy, sensual, erotic, frightening, awful moment, and quite brilliant.

Philip Cairns Humour is supplied courtesy of Tiresias (Robert Benfield) and Cadmus (Jim Bywater) a couple of old Bacchanial sots who are happy to worship because of the drink – I always enjoy it when a toy teddy bear comes to life. The play also features an excellent performance by Philip Cairns as Pentheus’ head of security – a self-sacrificing, unquestioning supporter who only functions to protect and obey.

This is one of those productions where you go on thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. Every so often a new thought comes into your head about it – a fresh insight, a sudden realisation, an unexpected appreciation. There’s a lot going on during those 100 minutes of non-stop drama. I think it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t have some kind of life after this season ends. It should at least be recorded for television or DVD. But the key to the success of this show is the outstanding overall vision of how this classic tale could be brought right up to date, transforming a dead brownfield environment into a place of vibrant artistic excellence. If you enjoy experimental innovation in your theatregoing, you’re going to love this.

Review – Blood Wedding, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2012

Blood WeddingBlood Wedding, together with The Bacchae, form the first two thirds of this year’s major “Made in Northampton” highlight, the Festival of Chaos, which is also part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. This is no mean achievement, and one of which the Royal and Derngate can truly be proud. The plays (including Hedda Gabler coming later this summer) are Artistic Director Laurie Sansom’s three all time favourites in the whole of drama; so I expect we will see a large dose of his special magic in these productions.

Kathryn Pogson Certainly his creative footprints are all over Blood Wedding. The cast work together as a superb ensemble, which I’ve found is the absolute hallmark of his directing style, and the play has a generally stylised and cultured feel to it. I think Mr Sansom even sneaks into the cast himself as the disembodied voice of the news broadcast on TV. The production has a versatile and useful set – I particularly admired the upstairs landing in the wedding scenes, which seems to exist without any side access – and the whole show is sensibly and properly lit. Dougal Irvine’s specially composed score is frankly gorgeous, played live by a gifted quartet in the orchestra pit, and I could imagine myself seeing the show again, simply to re-experience the music.

Liam Bergin The play of course is like a 20th century Spanish Shakespeare – a classic tragedy, which lends itself to all sorts of modernisation and adapting. Lorca’s masterpiece was first staged in 1932 but like Shakespeare its themes of nature, fate and revenge are timeless and can fit in any era, any place. This production is set “sometime in the near future”; a rather surreal world where TV reception is still tenuous, hospital receptionists don’t speak to you until you’ve taken a numbered ticket from the pull-off machine, and you still wash using a Victorian style jug and bowl.

Ery Nzaramba The surrealism is further emphasised in the language. Like much of Shakespeare, the rhythms of the verse lend their own atmosphere, which comes across to good effect in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation. It’s set in southern Spain, but the actors use English North Country accents; and Tommy Murphy includes some down under phrases to the text. “No worries” and “Good-oh” have become reasonably universal but when Leonardo’s wife says she bought something “on special” (instead of “in a sale”) and he describes distances in “klicks”, you are definitely on Terra Australiana. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate ploy or just an accident of idiom; together with all the mother’s anxieties about dust on shoes this could just as easily be the Outback as Andalucia. It all contributes to an intrigue of displacement.

Amanda Wilkin This is extremely stirring drama. From the moment the tale starts to unfold you are locked in. Kathryn Pogson’s Mother, berating Liam Bergin’s Groom about his choice of bride-to-be and her enduring resentment over the Felix family is all very recognisable. Indeed, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw elements in this opening scene of our very own blood wedding almost 25 years ago; and when the mother finally meets the bride and her father on their own territory, you sense it has all the makings of an acrimonious Scouse wedding reception. (If you’ve ever attended one of those, you’ll know what I mean.) Kathryn Pogson is scarily convincing as a woman just hanging on to her wits, who is emotionally and psychologically scarred by the death of the men in her family, who faces the prospect of her only remaining son leaving her, who scrambles around for reasons to hate her prospective daughter in law, and who wallows in a general disdain for the wider Felix family. Liam Bergin too is excellent as the resolute son toiling on the land all day (partly to get away from his mother, you suspect), exuding a dapper confidence on his wedding day and embodying heroism in his determination to track down the swine who has nicked his bride.

Robert Benfield They are well matched by the pairing of Ery Nzaramba as Leonardo and Amanda Wilkin as his wife. Bitter with his home life, Mr Nzaramba’s Leonardo can barely disguise his loathing for his wife, and gives a great portrayal of someone who is hurting as much as he hurts. The audience should detest him for the way he treats his wife, but his emotionally subtle performance makes your response much more complex. He has a great stage presence in his first scene, when you feel he could lash out with considerable violence at any minute; but this is nicely reigned in for the wedding scene, where he fades remarkably into the crowd so that the abduction of the bride comes as a complete surprise (except that I’ve now told you about it.) I thought Amanda Wilkin was fantastic alongside him – treading a fine line between accepting and resenting her lot, gaining our sympathy for her plight without any mawkish demands for it; perceptive, but powerless; another subtle and fascinating performance.

Rosie Ede The unusual presentation of the character of The Girl – part Shakespearean Fool, part Greek messenger – as a fully adult male in the shape of Robert Benfield works very well. It fits in comfortably with the general surrealism of the production as a whole and also gives the larger than life character more prominence. When she lets loose a tirade of obscenities it makes more sense than if a genuine little girl had said it, whilst still retaining its shock impact. Every time she makes an entrance, she oozes trouble and portent; and her bloodied appearance after the interval, foretelling the death and destruction to come, makes for a very disturbing image.

Jim Bywater The whole cast are excellent, with no weak links at all, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rosie Ede as the maid (and particularly as the nosy neighbour), Jim Bywater as the bride’s father – something of a Dickensian self-made man to that characterisation – and Donna Berlin as Leonardo’s mother in law, trying in vain to keep the peace between her warring family. There are some great set piece moments – most notably the machinations at the wedding scene itself, and also later when the wedding party, in pursuit of Leonardo and the bride, enclose and move in on Leonardo and the Groom at their double death scene; that made a very effective and striking tableau. The production takes on the nature themes of the last part of the play – the appearance of the Moon, the living forest, and so on – with some clever modern twists, and the whole vision of the modernised setting holds together extremely well. Despite – or maybe because of – its stylisation, it’s a very engaging production that holds your attention throughout and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing something very special, that magic something that can only happen on a stage.

Donna Berlin It was a shame that on the performance we saw, one significant member of the cast got all petulant at curtain call; when the cast moved into the wings before returning for a second call you could see this person mouthing “What, again? Really? Do I have to? Oh for God’s sake” (or the equivalent), returning to the stage with an impatient glare and subsequently hot-footing it back offstage before some members of the cast had even had the time to stand up straight again. Not only did it convey the message to the audience that they didn’t care about how we reacted to the show, it was also disrespectful to their colleagues. A pet hate of mine! I trust it was a stress-induced one-off.