Original here. A decade ago, “updating” Greek tragedy was going through of its periodic spells of fashionability. The bogeyman that was George W Bush was not infrequently the target of this to my mind rather leaden approach. I am now almost entirely out of touch with “Dublin’s theatreland” and I will confess that I do not see this as one of the greater tragedies of my life.
Transporting Euripides’ The Bacchae to contemporary Baghdad doesn’t work, argues Seamus Sweeney: The Bacchae of Baghdad at The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
The Bacchae of Baghdad
Euripides’ The Bacchae in a new version
written and directed by Conall Morrison
The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
8th March – 15th April 2006
As Dublin’s theatreland prepares itself for a centenary festival of Beckettiana, one is tempted to wish Euripides had the lawyers of the Beckett Estate. Famously protective of Beckett’s oeuvre, they swoop to prevent versions Waiting For Godot with a female cast and the like. Being dead for two and a half thousand years, Euripides has no one to protect him from the depredations of modern directors. It is of course inevitable that each age brings its own preoccupations and interests to their productions of the classic Greek tragedians (and comedians), but there’s something profoundly depressing about the apparent belief that ancient drama is a mere tabula rasa on which it is for us to clumsily impose our own meaning.
Two to three years ago there was a great vogue for revivals of Greek tragedies that drew parallels with the war in Iraq. Plays such asIphigenia at Aulis, with Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter for the sake of what will turn into a long, increasingly confusing and bloody war in the East, and Antigone, with its theme of individual conscience against the claims of the polis, had almost too obvious parallels to contemporary events. Directors could not resist the temptation to make the parallels even more explicit. This is testimony to the power of the classics, and who, reviewing subsequent events, could deny that if even some attention was paid in the White House and Downing Street to these plays, with their all too determined authority figures hurtling towards disaster, with their plots pervaded with hubris and nemesis, things may not have gone quite so badly?
Conall Morrison’s “new version” of Euripides The Bacchae comes at the tail end of that vogue, and encapsulates all the worst features of what has come to be the subgenre. More generally, it also exemplifies the tendency to take classics of the past – think of all those productions of The Ring with Siegfriend in a business suit and bowler hat – and, by some trite gimmicks in costume and set design, imagine that one is making some kind of profound statement.
The original Bacchae, of course cannot be left to stand by itself. The great innovation of Morrison’s version is that the action is set in Baghdad. The set features a suitably ancient looking pointed arch centre stage, while stage right and left we see random bits of scaffolding. High on stage right there is a neon sign for “Eat Eat” – the E of Eat being very obviously the McDonald’s arch turned on its side. Dionysus marches on stage, and delivers himself of the opening speech while waving his staff around suitably mystically. His opening line is:
There is no god but God.
He means Zeus, rather than Allah, but you get the point, no? The friend I saw the play with immediately compared this Dionysus’ hairstyle and general aesthetic to that personification of the pity and terror of the divine, Limahl. In presenting any Greek tragedy, but particularly one as intense and strange to modern sensibilities as The Bacchae – with its atmosphere of delirium and hysteria, its ecstatic edge – it is very easy to slide from pathos to bathos. In translation, the syntax of the speakers can seem absurdly convoluted, the warnings of the chorus trite, the to-and-fro ofstichomythia contrived. All these aspects were parodied by Housman in his hilarious Fragment of a Greek Tragedy:
CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is much the safest plan.
This audience was lost to seriousness when the Chorus of Bacchae ran down from the stage and started waving rubber snakes at the front rows. Giggles broke out, and while there is comic relief in theBacchae in Cadmus and Tiresias’ determination, despite their years, in making it to the Bacchic dancing and thus regain lost youth, giggling during a Greek tragedy is not a good sign of the success of the play.
Giggles continued. A dreadful sort of hybrid Euro Pop with some Arabic chanting played during some of the Bacchic rites, and when Dionysus, having slipped the bounds of his captors, appeared at the top of the stage to inspire his followers to tear down the McDonald’s – I mean Eat Eat – sign, this awful music reached nightclub volume. Much laughter ensued.
The most clumsy contrivance of all, however, was putting Pentheus in U.S. Army uniform, and various messengers in similar. This made no sense within the action of the play, for Pentheus is not a foreign interloper, but Dionysus’ cousin and the king of Thebes (sorry, Baghdad) by descent. With frustrating predictability (you could sense the exchange of glances between audience members, each communicating the same thing: I didn’t think they’d be so obvious, but they are) Dionysus, when captured, was lead onstage clad in Guantanamo Bay style orange jump suit and with a bag over his head.
At the end of the play, with Pentheus dead, his grandfather Cadmus turned into a snake and his mother Agaue banished having suffered the ultimate torture of realising she killed her son in the fury of the Bacchanal, the imposition of U.S. Army garb and American accents on Pentheus and the messengers made even less sense.
But making sense isn’t the point. The play ends with the Chorus – who up to now had danced and waved spears in apparently random ecstasy (I was surprised to find a choreographer credited) – dressed in burqas. The message seems to be that George W. Bush and Tony Blair are, by the Iraq War, creating more fundamentalism. Even a devotedly anti-war audience will be insulted by how unsubtle Morrison is in putting this across. I was glad that I only got the programme after the play – it features an essay by Terry Eagleton and a rather motley collection of quotes on fundamentalism, the chaos of contemporary Iraq, and “the Other”. Rather than provoking thought, these only served to further reinforce the feeling that you were being bullied into a particular worldview.
Surprisingly, there was no little soundbite from Said’s Orientalism. Or perhaps not so surprisingly. For, despite the quote from Salman Rushdie’s Herbert Read Memorial lecture “Is Nothing Sacred?” that, essentially, nothing should be sacred, during the play itself I detected a strong, almost overpowering sense that this is the mystical, irrational East, and reason is mere hubris if you try and bring it here. Perhaps the compilers of the programme were uncomfortably conscious of this.
In any case, the general incoherence and technical incompetence of the play distracted from any consideration of what the director may have been trying to achieve. The accents were perhaps the most irritating part. The actor playing Limahl, I mean Dionysus, affected a pseudo Arabian accent that grated – but this was not the worst in a cavalcade of bad accents. Given the complete dominance of American pop culture, one would imagine that an American accent would be one of the more straightforward ones in the actor’s armamentarium. Pentheus, whose acting until almost the very end consisted entirely of shouting, spoke in the second worst American accent on display. Much of what interest there was in the play, for me, lay in trying to determine what accents it reminded me of. A little of Burt Lancaster playing Elmer Gantry. A little of Brian Cox as Robert McKee in Adaptation. Finally it struck me. At the end of each couplet, Pentheus’ voice rose in a peculiar sing-song intonation that was, despite the depth of Pentheus’ voice, the echo of The Simpsons‘ Professor Frink.
Pentheus, like Creon in Antigone, is inevitably undone by the action of the play. It is impossible to play him sympathetically, indeed as anything other than hubris incarnated. Yet, again like Creon, portraying him as he is here, as a cartoon bully right from the start, further robs the play of its power. For contemporary audiences – or should I say contemporary directors – if it comes to a battle between an authority proud of its rationality and a mystical, irrational Dionysus, there is no question which is preferable. Similarly, inAntigone, when it comes to a battle between an authority insistent on the superior claims of the state and an Antigone determined to honour the claims of individual conscience, there is no contest. But for the Greeks, and indeed at other times in history (Hegel referred to the “moral force” of Creon) these issues were not as clear-cut. Simply imposing modern values on the portrayal of these authority figures robs their plots of what tension they have (for modern audience, little enough)
It is testament to the essential power of Euripides’ play that, in a miraculous moment that, for me, almost redeemed the production and was particularly acute because of the awfulness of what had preceded, there was one moving scene of supreme power. This was the penultimate scene between Cadmus and Agaue, when Cadmus manages to talk his daughter out of the Bacchic frenzy and she realises that what she has helped rend limb from limb was not a mountain lion but her own son. This was played straight, without trashy Europop, without any bits of business in U.S. Army uniforms or hammy accents, and for a brief scene we were transported from Abbey Street, from the clumsy agitprop and reflex anti-Americanism, to a moment of genuine pity and terror.
That wonderful moment aside – and that was the genius of Euripides, which Morrison is for once sensible enough not to mess with – this was a saddening evening at the theatre. There’s something embarrassing about the theatre of Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory, who for all their faults were pioneers of their time and burnished forever Dublin’s reputation as a theatre town, playing host to such a frankly boring concept that would have seemed tired and dull in London two years ago.