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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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Review of Blood Wedding – part of the Festival of Chaos at Royal & Derngate

Blood Wedding Review – Royal & Derngate, Northampton

 

Blood Wedding_Seline Hizli The Bride and Kathryn Pogson The Mother

GOODNESS I love Royal & Derngate. I can’t help it. I’ve seen those theatres going through their ups and downs of the last twenty years and fight and win against the finance-sucking behemoth of the London arts scene.

They’ve been consistently producing attractive and challenging theatre – with the brilliant Made in Northampton branding – while other regionals have struggled to survive.

So when they announced the Festival of Chaos series of plays – The Bacchae (staged in the abandoned Chronicle & Echo press hall), Blood Wedding and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler – it was further proof of their refusal to allow regional theatre to drop the curtain and bow out.

Yes. Exciting, original theatre in our little Midlands town. World premieres, national arts press heading north to visit, international playwrights drafted in, unfailingly fabulous sets and live musicians; what’s not to like?

I’ve been particularly looking forward to The Bacchae (which I can’t help but pronounce with a Scouse accent, as in; ‘aye, where’s me baccy?’), but couldn’t see it today on the afternoon press show.

So first for us was Blood Wedding, a new adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tale of family feuds and infidelity set beneath the searing Andalucian sun.

We’re introduced to The Groom (Liam Bergin) and his whining, mourning mother (Kathryn Pogson) as she constantly revisits the terrible deaths of her husband and son at the hands of the vicious Felix family. She’s seeing snakes in the kitchen and hidden all the knives.

But the central setting is not the events of the past but the wedding of her surviving son to the daughter of a successful widower, brought up in isolation on one of Spain’s many desolately dry farms. (So far, so Shakespearean).

While the wedding formalities are arranged we’re presented with the stifling poverty of Leonardo’s family. While his wife (played beautifully by the arresting Amanda Wilkin) and baby wait for him to get work and feed them physically and emotionally, he’s already detached himself and riding his horse into the dust to pursue illicit liaisons with the bride-to-be.

As the marriage date arrives the (surprisingly large) cast gather to celebrate, but the Bride and Leonardo behave less like star-crossed lovers and more like spoilt teens. The Groom’s mother continues to dominate the play both physically and mentally as she perpetuates the mythology of her victimised family and drives the last good thing in her life away to seek revenge.

As always the Royal’s staging is beautiful, innovative and makes the small stage work like a much bigger canvas.

The cast work most effectively in the wedding scenes, when the swaying choreography and sweet vocals combine to give the audience its only sense of a hot Spanish setting.

There’s also the surreal but effective performance of Robert Benfield (yes, a grown man) as The Girl, a dirty voice of reality who dips in and out of the action and whose purpose lends more to the playwright’s poetic obsession with death than the fluidity of the story. By the time The Cousin turned into The Moon I was truly confused and a little bit bored.

The monologues dragged on, the occasional forays into ‘modern’ humour grated and broke the flow, and the search through the woods gave me no sense of jeopardy, perhaps because I already had no affection for the fugitives anyway.

Seline Hizli as the Bride tried her damnedest to portray a woman who wanted to reject the path chosen for her as a woman, (while looking like a cross between Rose Byrne and Rachael Weiss). Similarly Amanda Wilkin gave the inexplicably rejected wife a life of sorrowful inevitability.

Some of the movement was allegorical and beautiful. It was lovely to watch, but I wanted to feel the oppressive dry Spanish landscape of the 1930s. I wanted to care.

Still, two rather buff male characters got their shirts off quite a lot, which was nice.

 

Blood Wedding runs at Royal & Derngate, Northampton until June 30. You can find out more about the whole Festival of Chaos line-up and book tickets on 01604 624811 or via http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk.

 

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