Ben Whishaw in Bakkhai: Theatre Review

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Now, Greek tragedies are not really my bag to be honest because they seem far too heavy, over-dramatic and require far too much concentration to be enjoyable. Luckily, this is not the case in Bakkhai, which has been modernised in same parts. Granted, some bits did drag and I did get puzzled in places, but I enjoyed it and that is vastly down to the strong performances by Ben Whishaw, Bertie Carvel and Kevin Harvey.

I can’t go too in depth with the plot summary as I don’t want to give anything away and also because I can’t explain it very well. I got the plot on the most basic level and it is this – Whishaw is Dionysus, who is a God but the word around the Thebes is that his origin is false, and does not have powers. He has made the women of the city go crazy worshipping him and singing and dancing and having sex. Pentheus wants to stop the madness and goes up to their mountain but things take a turn for the worse.

I saw the play last week on only its second preview, so there is probably still many tweaks to be made. Like most Greek tragedies, there is a chorus but this set of women directly contribute to the story as they are the crazy followers. Their sections of song, random sounds, calls and acoustic drumming were very clever and it must have taken them a long time to nail their parts as their sections are so layered. Some of their pieces did go on a bit and I reckon by opening night it will be much tighter and polished.

L-R: Harvey, Whishaw & Carvel

L-R: Harvey, Whishaw & Carvel

Whishaw was the main attraction here but I honestly preferred Carvel. Each actor was incredible and they play multiple parts but I just found myself draw to Carvel, who has such a command of the stage. He appears as Pentheus in a business suit (told you it was modernised!) and a phone went off in the front row and he tells them off, which completely worked for his character. He then gets dressed in women’s clothing, goes a bit mental and then returns as his crazed mother who has just committed a terrible tragedy. The only thing letting him down was his crying abilities. Whishaw is a solid performer but I was not drawn to him and Harvey’s range of accents and physicality was incredible (he plays an old man so well).

The story is hard to follow as the multiple characters aren’t always explained, so you don’t know who they are. There are also many characters which are only talked about and it is hard to keep up. Also, there are probably 2-3 rambling monologues which could have done with a chop as I lost concentration. Probably after the first hour, when the plot actually started to go somewhere, I started to enjoy it and by the end, I was really involved.

While the text may not be my thing, the actors brought their all and the chorus parts are so damn technical and clever. The intimate setting of the Almeida Theare in Islington really helps as well as you feel pretty damn close no matter where you are and the staging is very basic and bare. I would definitely recommend for the performances alone. Don’t let the sombre subject matter put you off.

Bakkhai officially opens on Thursday 30th July at the Almeida Theatre.

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