Daily Archives: August 13, 2007

POPPEA

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
Poppea
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

WHEN IT COMES TO UPSETTING AUDIENCES, Barrie Kosky is a director who arrives in Edinburgh with an impressive list of previous convictions. In his native Australia, he allegedly provoked walkouts by dressing the chorus of The Barber of Seville in pigs’ heads. In Essen, after he came to Europe, his version of The Flying Dutchman was stopped for several minutes by a fight in the stalls. And when this production, based on Monteverdi’s Incoronazione Di Poppea, first opened in Vienna, one critic was moved to describe it as “group sex of the genres”. So those with conservative tastes in opera and theatre should be warned; Barrie Kosky is not for them, nor they for Kosky.

For everyone else, though, his Poppea is a beautifully crafted and wildly exhilarating experience, which takes a notably nasty and cynical story – the bloody tale of the how the ambitious and sluttish Poppea, with the help of the goddess Amor, manoeuvres the Emperor Nero into elevating her to the throne in the place of his discarded empress – and gives it post-modern hell. The backbone of the evening lies in Kosky’s brilliant score, played by a four-piece band including Kosky himself on keyboards. It combines a strong thread of Monteverdi with what Kosky calls the “sarcasm and melancholia” of a series of great Cole Porter love-songs – Night and Day, I’ve Got You Under My Skin – to create an extraordinary sense of sophistication and decadence, combined with fierce erotic obsession; imagine Porter and Monteverdi both sung as if they were Kurt Weill, and you begin to get the aural picture.

The visual and dramatic aspects of the show are sometimes slightly less successful. Melita Jurisic’s slightly crone-like Poppea, for example, with a nasty mouthful of jewelled fillings, is difficult to decode. And an attempted murder conducted to a minor-key version of Anything Goes shades into unsubtle slapstick. But Kyrre Kvam and Barbara Spitz, as Nero and the god Amor, turn in performances of such spine-tingling brilliance and charisma, sliding breathily from Monteverdi to Porter and back again, that the show proves irresistible. Both are finally as amoral as each other; and the closing tableau, under what look like the mesh-covered strip-lights of a battery chicken-house, is a sleazy monument to the sheer squalid emptiness of lust and ambition, without love or compassion.

Joyce McMillan
Until 13 August
EIF p. 20

ENDS ENDS

The Bacchae

INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL
The Bacchae
4 stars ****
King’s Theatre

IT WAS PERHAPS THE MOST gllittering first night ever in Scottish theatre, as the blisteringly  high-profile National Theatre of Scotland/Edinburgh Festival co-production of Euripides’ The Bacchae opened at the King’s Theatre on Saturday evening; and in the programme for the show, there was a quote and a challenge, from the company to itself.  “For centuries people have spoken of the Greek myths as something to be rediscovered and reawakened,” says the Italian writer Roberto Calasso.  “But the truth is that the myths are still out there, waiting to awaken us….. ”

And whatever else is said about John Tiffany’s new version of The Bacchae, in a contemporary translation by Ian Ruffell and David Greig, it certainly comes as a disturbing and often rude awakening to a culture that has often been lulled, over the centuries, into thinking of the great dramas of ancient Greece as dusty pieces of literature, performed – if at all – with an air of sonorous reverence.  First seen in 407 BC, The Bacchae is, to begin with, perhaps the most strange and unsettling of all the great Greek dramas.  It tells the story of the god Dionysus, the son of Zeus and of the Theban princess Semele, who has lived in exile in the countries of the East since his birth, but now returns to Thebes, with his band of wild dancing women, the Bacchae, to claim his status as a god.

At one level, the play is therefore a classic human drama about the illegitimate child returning to claim his own, and wreaking revenge when he finds only mockery and rejection.  But it is also a great political parable about the terrible fate that awaits a state which cannot acknowledge, and find a balance between, all the different aspects of human nature, including the Dionysian impulse to drink, dance, play and play-act, to lose the self in rituals of sensual pleasure and transformation.  And in the powerful confrontation between the show’s playful, dangerous star Alan Cumming as Dionysus, and a superbly grey and controlled Tony Curran as his cousin, the Theban Prince  Pentheus, it’s possible to sense a whole rich vein of resonance for our own political culture, torn as it is between a growing binge-culture of uncontrolled excess on one hand, and, on the other, a new authoritarian obsession with law and order, and the suppression of “anti-social” behaviour.

Now it should be said that in trying to find a full theatrical expression of that confrontation, John Tiiffany’s production makes legions of errors, some of them as baffling as they are disappointing.  Its visual imagery, to begin with, is more intermittently spectacular than consistently dramatic and telling.  Dionysus, for example, is supposed to be a physically gorgeous shape-changer, beautiful and dazzling; here, he is confined to one little golden outfit with a messy wig, and is never allowed to look fabulous at all.

Beyond the visual, the production suffers from strange lapses of pace and vocal energy; the final long, elegiac scene between Pentheus’s mother and grandfather, for example, limps along at a snail’s pace, despite a superbly moving performance from Ewan Hooper as old Cadmus.  And most disappointingly of all, Tim Sutton’s lightweight soul-based score – for Dionysus’s mighty chorus of Bacchae, played by ten terrific black female actor/singers in glittering shades of red  – only rarely rises to the occasion.  At the height of the narrative, it never begins to achieve the kind of volume, rhythm and power that would really express the mighty ecstasy of the Dionysian rite; and sometimes, the ear aches for a few shuddering bars of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which comes so much nearer the mark.

For all these weaknesses, though, in the end Tiffany’s production carries three strands of brave, ground-breaking energy that make it infinitely worth seeing.  First, it achieves some astonishing visual coups-de-theatre, blazing exhibitions of fireand light that are as witty as they are thrilling.  Secondly, in the great 7:84 tradition to which he belongs, Tiffany recognises the plain didactic simplicity of Euripides’s drama – recognise all the gods, or suffer the consequences – and its place in popular culture.  He uses popular forms freely throughout, from the opening pop-soul numbers in which The Bacchae become Dionysus’s backing singers, to the Gay Eye For The Straight Guy sequence in which Dionysus seduces Pentheus into women’s clothes; and in every case, the popular form fits the drama better than more solemn and archaic forms of presentation.

And above all, Alan Cumming’s central performance as Dionysus – alternating with a terrifying swiftness between light-hearted, ultra-camp charm and raging, all-powerful fury – represents a real, if still uncertain, landmark in marrying the new strength of queer culture to one of the oldest stories of our civilisation.  For when societies grow rigid, authoritarian and blinkered, the control of the sexuality of men who challenge and transgress traditional models of masculinity always becomes a central obsession, often expressed with a terrifying brutality.  In the last generation, our western culture has taken some steps towards a true civic recognition of those aspects of Dionysian energy that were repressed for so long.  But the danger of backlash, and the advance of new kinds of control-freakery, still stalks our civilisation.  Euripides’  warning is that we may pay a heavy price for that mood of reaction; and this strange, uneven show represents a tentative but thrilling first step towards making that warning real, for a 21st century audience.

Joyce McMillan
Until 18 August
EIF p. 19

ENDS ENDS