12 August 2007 Scotland on Sunday

The Bacchae

Translated by David Greig. NTS review.

THE buttocks come first. After 16 years away from the Scottish stage, Alan Cumming enters head first from above, his backside exposed for all to see. It's a gesture that sets the cheeky tone of John Tiffany's thrilling production of Euripides' great tragedy, one that injects the 24000-year-old play with a vigorous dose of 21st century theatricality and gender-bending fun.

When the Perthshire actor rights himself and smirks out to the audience, we know we're in safe hands. When, with a flourish, he magics the ropes away and makes brilliant red poppies appear around his mother's grave, we are reminded that in Tiffany, director of last year's Black Watch, we are in the hands of a master of stagecraft, a man truly in charge of the transformative power of theatre. It's one of the most arresting opening five minutes I can remember seeing on the Scottish stage – and there is bolder still to come.

There can be few more appropriate plays than The Bacchae to open the drama programme of the Edinburgh International Festival. Translated here by David Greig, in a typically witty, modern adaptation, Euripides' play relates the archetypal struggle between the forces of liberty, libation and libidinousness, on the one hand, and of austerity, order and restraint, on the other. As the Scottish capital heaves with revellers, drinking in the cultural excesses of the world's biggest arts festival, The Bacchae stands both as a defiant shout of "yah-boo-sucks" to those who would rather the whole shebang was buttoned up and put away, and as a salutary warning to the fun-seekers that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

In the same way Annie Griffin's movie Festival showed the heady energy and the miserable fag-end of Edinburgh's annual knees up, so Tiffany's production takes us from delirium to hang-over in the most palpable way. Any production of The Bacchae you're likely to have seen before will have given a far more straight-forward account. You'll have seen the arrival into Thebes of Dionysus, determined to settle his account with local top man Pentheus. Dionysus will have been unhappy not to have been treated as the god he is and, with his band of sensuous followers known as the Bacchae, he will have come to ask Pentheus for respect. The authoritarian ruler, however, will have had nothing to do with it and had Dionysus locked up – only to have paid for such disrespect with his life.

In that odd way Greek plays have, the chorus will have chanted through their lines wearing masks and looking out of place. Here, by contrast, they're the life and soul of a great gospel party, ten black singers in blood-red dresses belting out songs by composer Tim Sutton in a way that makes no bones about the attractions of the Dionysian life. They are funny, sassy and soulful – and we forgive the occasional awkward fit of the lyrics to the melodies because it's such a good idea in the first place.

With Cumming as Dionysus, meanwhile, it takes little to seduce us into the god's good-time ways. He remains a mesmerising stage presence, playing the text with endless variety, now a whisper, now an authoritative growl, next a camp New York gesture, then an old-school Victor and Barry mug to the stalls. If Greek tragedy makes you think of musty classrooms, this is a performance and a production to blow the dust and cobwebs away.

Tony Curran as his nemesis Pentheus is a great foil, for the most part a buttoned-up bureaucrat in black suit and a tie, opposite Cumming in his outrageous golden tunic. But then in Euripides' wonderful turn-around, he agrees to go on what Dionysus calls a "transvestite mission to spy on women," cross-dressing with suspicious relish and reappearing in a long green dress and tiara. It's a moment that revels in pansexual ambiguity, painting a very modern picture of girls who are boys who like boys to be girls.

That's when the production turns dark. The pendulum swings and Dionysus insists on getting his bloody revenge. No more tap-dancing granddads or flaring flames. The music turns sombre, Paola Dionisotti does a tragic turn as the deluded mother of the murdered Pentheus and we find ourselves cruelly waking up to the morning after the night before. Hey, but what a swell party it was.

© Mark Fisher

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