Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bacchae of Baghdad at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

As I said, my class went to Ireland for spring break. Here is the first in a series of reviews/reflections I will be posting about the trip.

Review: Bacchae of Baghdad
Julie Pinsonneault

The appeal of ancient drama comes from its timelessness. Themes such as war and characters such as the grieving mother translate comparably to our modern times. For writer/director Conall Morrison to stage a version of Euripides' The Bacchae in contemporary Iraq merely extends the template that pre-Christian Greece set for humanity over 2,000 years ago. Aptly renamed the Bacchae of Baghdad, this show currently runs at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.

The curtains open to reveal the ravaged peaks of a Babylonian city. Pieces of cloth are suspended from bamboo poles partitioned for areas of rest and commerce. Among the ancient architecture hangs the neon knockoff of a McDonalds’ sign. It’s red and yellow illuminates against the backdrop of traditional tapestries and the entrance to Pentheus’ palace. This is the first in a series of images representing the corruptive power of Western civilization.

Before Pantheus, ruler of this city, makes his appearance the “barbarian” God Dionysius presents the issue that surrounds the play: He and his followers, the bacchae, are not welcome because they are seen as a threat to Pantheus’ dictatorship. Pantheus’ goal is to displace this Eastern troupe from his land despite the fact that he is their direct descendent through his mother who is a bacchae.

Christopher Simpson’s presentation of Dionysius brings unwarranted comic relief to a decidedly serious event. Dressed as some Rastafarian caricature with multi-colored dreadlocks and MC Hammer style pantaloons, he speaks with a non-existent foreign accent that sounds like a hybrid of Iranian and Russian as he spins around ungracefully in some sort of pagan rapture. True, no one can be sure how the ancient Greeks did it, whether pantomime and excessive expression was necessary to project throughout their massive outdoor spaces, but even they would find humor in Simpson’s over the top performance.

In contrast, Pentheus, played by Robert O’Mahoney, marches out in U.S. military garb equip with a backwards American flag sown onto his right arm. His rage and command shows through his mostly shouted dialogue, which serves as a great foil to the chorus of bacchae. These women dressed scantily in scraps of Middle Eastern fabric stamp their feet, dance and holler a marriage of ecstasy. They deliver their lines in unison, each taking turns as chorus leader throughout the play. Their frenzy and the rage of Pentheus makes Dionysius seem the rationale being, which makes Simpson’s acting all the more absurd

As the voice of reason, Simpson should have concentrated more on what a level-headed character would do rather than an ancient Greek actor. Things have changed vastly since the time Euripides wrote this play and there is no need to revert back to their techniques as the lone player.

O’Mahoney embraces the modern version, basing his model on a contemporary American general by barking out orders, standing up tall and proud and furrowing his brow—all of this comes across naturally and fits with the staging. Pentheus lives as a product of the times while Dionysius seems out of place with his fake accent and clunky movements. When he raises his calves up towards his knees and sets them down slowly as a tribute dance to the gods, he looks as if he is ready to topple over with the next movement.

Morrison reorganized this play as an investigation of Western civilization and its destruction of Eastern culture. Having Dionysius play such an over the top character pushes the Western European audience to relate to their familiar heritage rather than the Eastern representation in Dionysius.

The conundrum further compounds upon the entrance of one of Pentheus’ troops and marks the unraveling of Morrison’s central concept. The soldier’s dialogue contains the distinct twang of an American southerner as he relays the story of watching the bacchae in their natural habitat in a field among animals. The accent, though comical at first listen, presents another unnecessary character reference. The fast food sign, the inverted American flag and the camouflage gear symbolizes America without need for further stereotype. Second, his voice distracts as the fourth use of accent throughout the play: Irish for the bacchae, American northerner for Pentheus, and Greek/Russian for Dionysius and now American southerner for the soldier.

After the speech Pentheus becomes obsessed with seeing the bacchae and Dionysius convinces him to dress as a woman and observe them. This infatuation comes from almost nowhere. He is their enemy one moment, trying to capture and uproot them and their admirer the next, hatching elaborate plans to find and watch them. This concept--that the West comes from the East and thus becomes infatuated with its existence—is an engaging topic that Morrison fails to expand upon. Instead Pentheus changes in an instant and the bacchae repay his veneration with his murder. In turn, Dionysius banishes the bacchae responsible, Pentheus’ mother.

By the end the gods have punished everyone; therefore, Morrison fails in his revamping of this Euripides drama. The tragedy as a moral play rebuking the West for their invasion of Iraq does not work because both the West and East suffer. In the end the gods rule all and Fate is responsible for the fall of mankind, not man. True the ending exclaims violence will be punished by violence, but it also takes the blame from humanity and places it on the shoulders of higher powers. How can America be responsible for its invasion of Iraq when the gods so command?


Blogger D. Clark said...

Sounds like it was a great play. Wish I could've seen it.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Askinstoo said...

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10:24 PM  

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