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'Dionysus in the Underworld': A modern, meta-theatrical take on Frogs and Bacchae

For the 67th annual Greek play, King’s College London returns with its most ambitious project yet, 'Dionysus in the Underworld.' This year, director David Bullen and associate director Isaac Freeman have fused the works of two celebrated Greek dramatists namely, Aristophanes and his comedy Frogs with Euripides’ tragedy Bacchae. This is a very clever choice since both plays feature Dionysus (the god of wine, fertility and theatre) in the central role, and this dual role allows a greater opportunity to explore this multifaceted figure. Duality is also reflected in the language, as the production skilfully alternates between English and ancient Greek which is accompanied with English subtitles above the stage to make it more accessible. While the play attempts to highlight the climate emergency, the subject is mildly addressed through the use of leaves and extinction rebellion posters wrapped around the front of the stage with a background consisting of black bags and litter which often remains unnoticed during the course of the action. Despite this, the production must be commended for its ingenuity and boldness in taking the risk to adapt two celebrated plays from antiquity and make them into something new, a risk that marvellously makes its mark.

Photo credit: Helen Kursten-Holmes

Douglas Eveleigh plays an energetic Dionysus in contrast to Sam Rattue’s straight-talking and sardonic Xanthius. Though they sound epic in name through their outfits and speech they appear remarkably human. Together they form a hilarious comedy duo in a scene replete with jokes and squabbles. In a highly amusing performance, Dionysus attempts to teach Xanthius how to command Charon in ancient Greek and this leads to Rattue’s spot on Ian McKellen impression as he mispronounces Charon as ‘Sharon’, triggering laughter from the audience. The crisp sound of thunder abruptly ends the scene of hilarity, followed by smoke and ominous music signalling Charon’s entrance. I feel that Charon’s entrance could have been more dramatic to correspond with the music and her role as the underworld’s ferryman, instead of her being wheeled on a chair across the stage under a black sheet. But her appearance made Eveleigh and Rattue react in such a farcical way that this added to comedic value of the scene.

The cast, especially the chorus are incredibly versatile throughout the production. They first appear as frogs in green jumpsuits who ambush a bewildered looking Dionysus when he is paddling to the underworld. The chorus are entertaining additions to his journey as they shamelessly rummage through his possessions and leap closer and closer towards him before breaking into a choreographed dance, it’s a spectacular scene of ordered chaos. The appearance of frogs also serves as a nice segue into the beginning of the first play with the play, Aristophanes’ Frogs. The next time we see them, they are in Pluto’s palace choosing sides in the battle of wits between the Euripides who is refashioned as a hipster, and Aeschylus in a scene that pits poet against poet. Nazmul Islam is a memorable Euripides with his aura of pomposity and tendency to make high-flown proclamations such as ‘art has to adapt universality is a fallacy’. Julia Miriam Perroni also plays Aeschylus with a commanding presence with her lyrical but dull speech which sends her followers to sleep. The use of purple lighting is apt in this scene because it accentuates the deathly white makeup of the cast and reinforces them as spectral figures of the underworld.

Photo credit: Helen Kursten-Holmes

Euripides’ Bacchae forms the latter half of the play and is predominately performed in ancient Greek. The chorus are spellbinding in their roles as maenads the frenzied followers of Dionysus. They embody the wilderness with garlands that decorate their hair as they chant and dance in praise of Dionysus. The music effectively reinforces the unsettling atmosphere established by the maenads performing their illicit Bacchic rites. The soft guitar melody is subtle yet alluring, while the pounding drumbeat is punctuated by their cacophonic shrieks. It’s extremely impressive how the maenads are never passive or stagnant, they are constantly lingering forces filled with fierce fervour in their expressions. In one notable moment, the herdsman is relaying in ancient Greek the maenads’ unhuman behaviours then after a chorus member’s clap he seamlessly switches to English. Subtleties such as these make the play so astonishing it’s hard to believe that I am watching a student production.

Athina Mitzali is exceptional as Agave and delivers the most compelling performance of the night. She has just murdered and dismembered her son Pentheus whilst under a Dionysiac trance. However, she fails to realise that the prized bull’s head she grasps is in reality her own son’s head. It’s not until Cadmus (her father) implores her to take another look at the head that she makes the critical discovery. In a series of minutes her joviality is displaced by unabating agony. Her piecing wail reverberates around the auditorium for all to hear as she drops to her knees in horror at her crime. It is a wonderfully impassioned portrayal of a mother in deep sorrow after being manipulated under Dionysus’ control.

I find it very difficult to find faults with the production beyond the fact that the ancient Greek speeches in the Bacchae segment could have been condensed so that we could pay more attention to the acting itself and not the subtitles above the stage. Also, a more naturalistic scenery, perhaps a backdrop of woodland or mountains could have been used to give a clearer visual indication that the setting has moved to the maenads in the remote plains of Thebes. Nevertheless, Dionysus in the Underworld is undoubtedly a tremendous production, the cast members are consistently outstanding in their roles and erudite in ancient Greek. The technical aspects of the play together with the makeup and costuming are excellent and artistic. And while the theme of climate change is not really foregrounded, the directors, cast and crew succeed in revamping two great ancient plays to produce an exciting and masterful production that they should truly be proud of.

'Dionysus in the Underworld' is The Greek Play for 2020 at KCL put on by the Department of Classics.

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