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Stunning, sickening and a huge success – Review of the Bacchae, Northampton Festival of Chaos season

THERE were points in Royal & Derngate’s adventurous modern retelling of Euripides’ The Bacchae where I had to look down and attempt to read the program. In the dark.

For all the knowledge that we were sitting in my former employer’s old printing press watching actors in a play, the last scenes were pretty shocking. And rightly so. After all, this isn’t panto, and I’m a total wuss when it comes to horror.

The Greek tragedy tells the story of Dionysus, half-God, half human, who returns to the city of his traumatic birth to wreak havoc on the human family who dishonoured his dead mother. (There’s a considerable complicated back story we don’t hear about in the two hours without an interval, so worth doing some homework if you aren’t familiar with two and a half thousand-year-old mythology).

Amanda Wilkin in The Bacchae – Pics ©Robert Day

The staging is brave – a huge space, complete with burnt-out car – within the decaying former printing press at the Chronicle & Echo, whose editorial staff still work next door. (It was originally arranged and adapted to be staged in a working casino, but thankfully that location fell through).

It was odd for Bloke and I, who had been part of the Chron generation who actually went in and out of the press halls when they were fully operational. You could smell the newsprint and almost hear the deafening noise of the presses that once filled the space.

The set designer has used this modern location to good effect – especially as the audience is in tiered seating very close to the action with TV screens above their heads.  The hall’s upstairs offices are used to great effect and amazing musicians are hidden up there in the balcony throughout. Take a coat though – it’s pretty chilly this June.

Although the principle antagonism is centred on the male leads of the lascivious Dionysus (Ery Nzaramba) and his arrogant cousin Pentheus, King of Thebes (Liam Bergin), it’s the women who dominate the action. The brilliant ‘chorus’ of the Bacchae, a girl gang entranced by Dionysus’s message of freedom, bewitch the women of Thebes to run animalistically amok in the desert (off stage). The Bacchantes presence is particularly effective during the ‘justice’ song (and yes, I jumped).

There’s ‘light relief’ in the form of Pentheus’s grandfather Cadmus and his blind prophet pal Tiresius who camp about the stage enjoying Dionysus’s wine, but the comedy is quickly eclipsed the imposing willowy figure of Pentheus’s regal mother Agave. Enticed to abandon herself to the freedom of the desert women, she returns blood-soaked and bonkers. A jaw-dropping and draining performance by the excellent Kathryn Pogson.

There’s some relief as it’s over, not because the show isn’t good – it really is – but because there’s certainly no happy ending. And your bum will be very numb from the seating.

I was surprised to see the majority of the audience seemed to be pensioners. Not that I have anything against pensioners, heaven forbid. But I expected a more varied demographic. (I witnessed several shocked older ladies elbowing their husbands and mouthing their distaste during the ruder and sweary-er points; it was like watching embarrassing sex scenes on TV with your parents).

There are parts of the production that just didn’t work for me – the over-long TV news sequence is clichéd and unnecessary. The key scenes where Dionysus turns his ranting, despotic, misogynist cousin from city slicker into cross-dressing acolyte (and takes off his pants) had as much spark as a mini Metro engine on a cold rainy morning.

But I loved the women. And the setting, and the ambition of the thing. The cast are amazing, particularly Amanda Wilkin, Alicia Davies, Donna Berlin and Philip Cairns. And you really have to give the whole company a standing ovation for the graft they’ve put in running this draining story in rotation with Blood Wedding at the Royal, (worth seeing after The Bacchae (see review here ).

Ery Nzaramba and Liam Bergin

You really should go and see The Bacchae, regardless of your age or knowledge of theatre. You should see it because it is a unique and thoroughly entertaining experience AND IT’S IN NORTHAMPTON.

You should go. Go on, get some culture, buy some tickets now.

The Bacchae runs at the Printing Press in Earl Street, Northampton until Saturday June 30. Call Royal & Derngate on 01604 624811.

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