I am interested in a god who says, 'was that a bit much?'
The worship of Dionysus, god of wine and drama, has been forbidden by Pentheus, king of Thebes. Having made converts across Asia, the god confronts the king. The inexperienced Pentheus refuses to compromise and is sent insane. His head is torn off by his mother, and Dionysus punishes the royal family for their intransigence.
Perhaps the most famous play by the last of the three great Athenian playwrights, the Bacchae has retained its power to shock for over two thousand years. Euripides' uncompromising pessimism and confrontational intelligence moulded a parochial myth into a masterpiece of theatrical intensity, grappling with a series of timeless conflicts: religious freedom against political order, rationalism and sensuality, masculine common-sense and feminine emotionalism.
Despite the obvious gulf in reference between Fifth Century Greece and modern Scotland, its resonant themes make it a fascinating choice for the National Theatre of Scotland's (NTS) contribution to the Edinburgh Festival. And a high profile one too: the creative team reads like a who's who of contemporary Scottish theatre. The production is written by Suspect Culture's David Greig, stars home grown Hollywood big hitter Alan Cumming - whose Dionysus marks his return to a Scottish stage after a 16 year hiatus - and is directed by auteur du jour John Tiffany.
After his success with Blackwatch last year, Tiffany sees this as a more personal project. "It's has been an ambition of mine for about fifteen years, since I studied Classics at Glasgow university, to stage the Bacchae. I've seen productions of it, but I've never felt its true energy. I was initially attracted to the celebration of hedonism, although it becomes a morning after when the hedonism goes too far."
Tiffany is also drawn to Euripides' precise characterisation. "Pentheus as a leader claims to be all-embracing and almost socialist. He is actually terrified of allowing the other into the state, but he is desperate to experience what that other actually is. Dionysus is more than a symbol: he's a character with a journey. He's vengeful and he goes too far - and I think that he's aware that he has gone too far. Not to give it modern psychological realism but I am interested in a god who says, 'was that a bit much?'"
This tension gives Euripides a more modern feel - the rapidly changing sympathies, the ethical confusion and subsequent mayhem all combine to create a perversely post-modern moral topography. Unlike Aeschylus, who defined the Classical dramatic form, Euripides manages to keep the pace while questioning the audience's assumptions.
"Aeschylus is dull as fuck, though. Too austere and very flowery," asserts Tiffany. "He puts it all down to fate - it doesn't touch on things that are relevant for a modern audience like women or foreigners being ostracised."
Featuring cross-dressing, frenzied packs of ecstatic women and a murder that is half political assassination and half religious ritual, the Bacchae has an argumentative cynicism closer to the cinema of Ken Loach than Aeschylus's majestic piety. It has much in common with NTS productions like Aalst or Blackwatch, which consider political and social contexts while refusing to give simple answers. There is also the matter of the staging: a Greek tragedy was as much about singing and dancing as the text. According to Tiffany, this fits well with a specific Scottish tradition.
"We don't live in a culture that has that overpowering and dense canon of plays that we have to base our repertoire on. Many of our great writers, like John Byrne, went to art school. There is a very Scottish way of using music and movement and a visual, visceral language: and humour, and politics. There's a real generosity in communicating with the audience."
Yet there are problems with ancient plays. As Tiffany points out, the classical conventions of mask and chorus act as barriers and risk turning the plays into moribund revivals. Tiffany acknowledges the dangers, but his instinctive irreverence should avert the bigger pitfalls of the form.
"There won't be a mask anywhere near the rehearsal. The choruses are supposed to be sung, so my idea is to turn the choruses into big gospel numbers. Ten strong chorus of black actresses - something that is usually so boring; I'm turning it into a big pop concert. Every good show should have a couple of songs in it. I am determined that we are going to make them really seductive for the audience."
This approach fits with an established aesthetic of the NTS - Wolves in the Walls was pop-opera for children, Disassocia made use of cacophonous interludes and Futurology was a flat-out revue. Fortunately, it doesn't violate the ethos of Euripides, who was notorious for adapting the songs of the Athenian pub for choral odes. As for the slight problem that the major action happens off stage, Tiffany is confident that the messenger speech, as re-written by Greig, is sufficiently beautiful to hold the audience's attention.
The Bacchae will be a test of NTS' resolve. If they can update Euripides without compromising the gap between his values and our own, and capture its terse moral discomfort whilst entertaining at the same time, they will set themselves up as a major international force. Blackwatch demonstrated that they have a firm grasp of the local context; the Bacchae is an ambitious attempt to take on history itself.
EIF at The Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
11/08/2007 - 18/08/2007
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
28/08/2007 - 01/09/2007