Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre, though more than 20 years old, have only quite recently hit breakthrough, beginning to amass a reputation as ones to watch. Their aesthetic is to engage directly with the audience and have fun with their material, but without betraying its darker, more profound heart. Can that approach work with a Greek tragedy by Euripides about brutal, bloody revenge? Yes, it can, and does.
Pentheus, king of Thebes, denies the divinity of the god Dionysus, whose drunkenly ecstatic female followers are rampaging on the hillside. He sets out to spy on them with fatal consequences. Like so many Greek tragedies, it’s partly about the gods’ lack of mercy. But it’s also summed up in a two-line exchange between Pentheus and Dionysus: “A man is lost without boundaries.” – “No, without them he is free.”
There are sounds of revelry offstage. Then a bunch of shaven-headed men in panty-girdles seem to break on to the stage. They don tutus. These are the unlikely chorus: the women of Thebes. Often Emma Rice’s production is as camp as a field full of pink bell-tents, but her tone meshes well with the brash new version of the text that’s used here. It also lulls us into a false sense of security before the frenzied climax.
The chorus and other characters address us directly, and once or twice even weave their way down the aisles and along the rows of seated punters. There’s a lively, eclectic live score that uses everything from electric guitar to tuba, accordion and autoharp. Most inventively, most of the props are made out of newspaper, from thyrsi (Bacchic ceremonial staffs) to a row of soldiers to a torn-off human head.
Giles King’s Pentheus is a petty pen-pusher, easily outwitted by Robert Lucskay’s imposing, seductive Dionysus. In the course of this week I’ve seen a solo play about a snobby restaurant, a piece of wacky devised performance about, er, wacky performance, and a rigorous slab of moral speculation. This beats them all hollow. It shows that theatre is all about play, but that play needn’t be at all trivial.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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