IT WAS perhaps the most glittering first night ever in Scottish theatre, as the blisteringly high-profile National Theatre of Scotland/Edinburgh International Festival production of Euripides's The Bacchae opened at the King's Theatre on Saturday. In the programme, there was a quote and a challenge, from the company to itself: "For centuries people have spoken of the Greek myths as something to be rediscovered and reawakened," says the Italian writer Roberto Calasso. "But the truth is that the myths are still out there, waiting to awaken us..."
And, whatever else is said about John Tiffany's new version of The Bacchae, in a contemporary translation by Ian Ruffell and David Greig, it certainly comes as a rude awakening to a culture that has often been lulled, over the centuries, into thinking of the great dramas of ancient Greece as dusty pieces of literature, performed - if at all - with an air of sonorous reverence.
First seen in 407 BC, The Bacchae is perhaps the most strange and unsettling of all the great Greek dramas. It tells the story of the god Dionysus, the son of Zeus and the Theban princess Semele, who has lived in exile in the countries of the East since his birth, but now returns to his homeland of Thebes with his band of wild dancing women, the Bacchae, to claim his status as a god.
At one level, the play is therefore a classic human drama about the illegitimate child returning to claim his own, and wreaking revenge when he finds only mockery and rejection. But it is also a political parable about the terrible fate that awaits a state which cannot acknowledge and find a balance between the different aspects of human nature, including the Dionysian impulse to drink, dance, play and play-act; to lose the self in rituals of sensual pleasure and transformation.
And in the powerful confrontation between the show's playful, dangerous star Alan Cumming as Dionysus, and a superbly grey and controlled Tony Curran as his cousin, the Theban prince Pentheus, it's possible to sense a whole rich vein of resonance for our own political culture, torn as it is between a growing binge-culture of uncontrolled excess on one hand and, on the other, a new authoritarian obsession with law and order, and the suppression of "anti-social" behaviour.
Now, it should be said that in trying to find a full theatrical expression of that confrontation, John Tiiffany's production makes legions of errors, some of them as baffling as they are disappointing. To begin with, its visual imagery is more intermittently spectacular than consistently dramatic and telling - Dionysus, for example, is supposed to be a physically gorgeous shape-changer, beautiful and dazzling. But here he is confined to one little golden outfit with a messy wig and is never allowed to look fabulous at all.
And, beyond the visual, the production suffers from strange lapses of pace and vocal energy - the final long, elegiac scene between Pentheus's mother and grandfather, for example, limps along at a snail's pace, despite a superbly moving performance from Ewan Hooper as old Cadmus.
And, most disappointingly of all, Tim Sutton's lightweight, soul-based score for Dionysus's mighty chorus of Bacchae - played by ten terrific black female actor/singers dressed in glittering shades of red - only rarely rises to the occasion. At the height of the narrative, it never begins to achieve the kind of volume, rhythm and power that would really express the mighty ecstasy of the Dionysian rite; and sometimes the ear aches for a few shuddering bars of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which comes so much nearer the mark.
For all these weaknesses, though, Tiffany's production carries three strands of brave, ground-breaking energy that make it infinitely worth seeing. First, it achieves some astonishing visual coups-de-theatre, blazing exhibitions of fire and light that are as witty as they are thrilling. Secondly, in the great 7:84 tradition to which he belongs, Tiffany recognises the plain didactic simplicity of Euripides's drama - recognise all the gods, or suffer the consequences - and its place in popular culture. He uses popular forms freely throughout the production, from the opening pop-soul numbers in which the Bacchae become Dionysus's backing singers, to the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy-style sequence in which Dionysus seduces Pentheus into women's clothes. In every case, the popular form fits the drama better than more solemn and archaic forms of presentation.
And above all, Cumming's central performance as Dionysus - alternating with a terrifying swiftness between light-hearted, ultra-camp charm and raging, all-powerful fury - represents a real, if still uncertain, landmark in marrying the new strength of queer culture to one of the oldest stories of our civilisation. For when societies grow rigid, authoritarian and blinkered, the control of the sexuality of men who challenge and transgress traditional models of masculinity always becomes a central obsession, often expressed with a terrifying brutality.
In the last generation, our Western culture has taken some steps towards a true civic recognition of those aspects of Dionysian energy that were repressed for so long. But the danger of backlash, and the advance of new kinds of control-freakery, still stalks our civilisation. Euripides's warning is that we may pay a heavy price for that mood of reaction; and this strange, uneven show represents a tentative but thrilling first step towards making that warning real for a 21st-century audience.
• Until 18 August. Today 8pm
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Friday 24 May 2013
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