For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was the apex of artistic creation. It perfected the balance between the Apollonian, the god who represented reason and logic as well as dreams and the prophetically inspired utterance necessary for art to be made, and the Dionysian, who represented intoxication, chaos, emotion. There is, of course, an irony that Euripides, in Nietzsche’s eyes, was responsible for the downfall of tragedy by upsetting the balance in favour of the Apollonian, in favour of rational argumentation, and yet the Bakkhai is all about Dionysus.
Long, lank hair. The human body is boring for him. He inhabits it without effort as he curls his wrist into a dance or slinks around in his figure-hugging gown. He is The Stig getting into your dad’s car.* He will take a moment to get used to this particular model, but it will only take a moment because he has mastered all cars.
A hippy stoner look. The Dionysian ambiguity: is he a god? Or just some drugged up delusional evangelist? His identity is slippery. For most of the play he claims not to be Dionysus, but only a messenger. But in the prologue he told us who he is, and that he has taken human form. The god of epiphany then spends most of the play denying his epiphanic nature. And, as a scruffy human, there is nothing visible to set him apart from any other mortal. Nothing to suggest he’s special. Apart from the vacant otherworldliness that Whishaw brings.
Echoes of the Christian faith in Carson’s language, particularly in the chorus, and in visual symbols. The makarismic “blessed is he” and the “hear our prayer” that the chorus sing. The themes of body (in Bakkhai bodies are for sex, or they are ripped apart by wild women; in Christianity the body of God is eaten as a ritual for nourishment, for expiation, and for remembrance) and blood (in Bakkhai Pentheus’ blood soaks the whole body of his mother; in Christianity the blood of God is drunk as a sacrament, as purgation, as catharsis). Or bread and wine (in Bakkhai wine leads people to a state of liberation, freedom from the toils of life and freedom from divisions of wealth and class; in Christianity wine is transubstantiated into blood). In the unison chants of the choral congregation, almost responsorial as in a church service. In the image of Agave caressing the dead, mutilated body of her sacrificial son.
Choral harmonies slide between euphony and atonality. Sometimes they sound like an old time radio jingle. Or they ululate in grief.
It is an old Doctor Who episode. A familiar but alien world at a crisis point. Muddy, rugged mountain landscape made of some fake material, sellotape stitchings almost visible. Lights like a UFO in the sky. Long dialogue scenes exploring the philosophy of the situation. A charismatic, odd central figure.
Almost more than anything else, this Bakkhai is about the power of clothing. Modern dress makes the contrast between the ‘normal’ world of Pentheus and the debauched world of the Bacchic women seem all the more stark. Pentheus is in a suit. The women are in fawn skin, they hold wooden sticks. It looks ridiculous, as it should.
Having Dionysus and Pentheus in dresses emphasises that they are gendered, that they can be symbols of power and wealth. They can be signs of allegiance to a faith, a cult, a lifestyle. Pentheus, the alpha male, is in a suit. Dionysus is in a flowing dress – powerful despite adopting traditionally feminine tokens. He does not need a suit to be powerful. Dionysus persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman in order to ridicule him. Listen to Chris Goode talk about clothing. He understands it much better.
Agave and the Bakkhai have been raving in the countryside and on the hills for days. They rip Pentheus limb from limb in their drunken, orgiastic frenzy. Then Agave snaps out of it. They are kids playing in mud. Filthy, but having had some wild fun, they run into the house out of breath, red-faced and smiling. Mum is not smiling. The look on her face when she sees their clothes and faces jolts them out of their reverie. Fun’s over. It’s time to clean up.
Last night I dreamt that I was living in the countryside. It was dark, there were hills and houses, and a big barn in which a load of young people were having a rave. There were gaggles of boys and girls, and people periodically went outside to vomit from too much alcohol, surrounded by a couple of friends. A cluster of girls came outside whose leader was Regina George in manners and Britney Spears in appearance. As she tried to dominate her friends, her hair grew longer and then fell out, her skin became paler and turned to dust, her body became emaciated until all that was left was the rusted metal scaffold of her body.
The grown ups met and discussed what to do: some thought that her death was not important, she brought it upon herself by being young and drinking and taking drugs. Others suggested trying to bring her back to life, that everyone should have a second chance and a go at redemption. Meanwhile, a couple of cats and I bundled her skeleton into the front seat of my car, a Fiat Panda, in the darkness. Her bones had become wooden thyrsoi, verdigris clinging, and we struggled to keep them all in the right order. We arranged them the best we could. We fed her milk and honey where her mouth should have been. We gave up hope, shut the car door and walked away.
One of the cats called me back. Through the window Britney’s flesh was puffing back into its previous state. Her face returned. She had cropped hair. She was alive. She stepped out of the car and walked back to join her friends without a word of thanks. As she scrapped with her boyfriend, accusing him of not caring that she was dead, the cats and the grown ups and I looked on and nodded.
For Kate Tempest, the gods these days are in the betting shops and in the caff. Maybe not: maybe the gods are in the magazines and on ITV2.
*sorry for the Top Gear metaphor.