The opening production of the Almeida’s ambitious Greeks season, Robert Icke’s gloriously bold Oresteia, earned every minute of its three hour 45-minute running time. Though James Macdonald’s take on Euripides is much more compact, running at just under two hours without an interval, it’s not nearly so taut a thing, but it contains moments of brilliance.
It’s a much rawer, earthy production, the bare brick back wall of the theatre exposed, the main roles taken on by three actors, accompanied by a chorus, the whole thing overseen by a light like that in an operating theatre, an eye of the gods.
Dionysus, god of wine and theatre, dance and song, arrives in Thebes and charms the women there, in every sense; they take to the hills where they dance and cavort, leaving their men behind. The uptight king, Pentheus, is alarmed by this development and determined to reassert his authority but Dionysus turns the tables on him.
The casting is superb. Ben Whishaw is delicate yet magnetic as Dionysus, impish and strange, clad in a sweeping fawn skin gown with black hair streaming over his shoulders, he is a gender-fluid, mercurial, definitely sexual presence, at times Christ-like, at times a little bit reminiscent of Conchita Wurst; occasionally he flexes his shoulders as if he’s still getting used to wearing this particular skin.
When we first see Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus he is smartly suited and every inch the politician – the measured hand gestures, the edge of arrogance – but Dionysus finds strings within him on which he can pluck. The imagery gets increasingly odder as the production progresses. Having been tricked by Dionysus, Pentheus is dressed as a woman, looking not unlike like Miss Trunchbull’s younger sister in his Chanel jacket and court shoes, and this act of costuming frees something in him. Things switch up a gear again by the end. Carvel is now Agave, mother of the dead Pentheus, raving in a negligee, smeared with dirt to the elbow. It’s a scene that’s initially almost as daft to behold as it is startling, but Macdonald and Carvel commit to it entirely and they make it powerful.
Not all the scenes have the same strange energy. The production foregrounds the chorus, the Bakkhai, these wild women wreathed in ivy; Macdonald fills the theatre with their voices. Orlando Gough’s a cappella music has a dissonant Balkan quality, high pitched and unearthly. They trill and shriek, half-singing, half-speaking. Sometimes the sound they make is quite beautiful, rhythmic and mournful, but at other times their wailing becomes incessant. There’s just so much of it and the momentum of the production suffers for it. But though it undulates tonally, when Whishaw and Carvel are on stage it contains moments of inspired madness.