REVIEW: The Bacchae at La Mama

By Taylor Kendal


Spanning thousands of years, the mythologies and stories of the ancient worlds have been both entertaining tales and precautionary warnings intended on showing what evils may befall those who displease the gods. Of course, these original writings can at times seem rather dated in some aspects, particularly with the notions of deities and gods ruling over high. But, who is to say that some of these tales cannot resonate in the modern world, and perhaps in some ways even mirror events and people in this day and age? It is this notion, created as a collaboration between Robert Reid and Monash University Student Theatre (MUST), that brings audiences this fresh and fierce retelling of Euripides’ The Bacchae; a two part tour de force staged at La Mama Courthouse.


For those who are unfamiliar with this particular piece, The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus, a demi god who was spurned by his maternal mortal family and denied a place of honor as a deity, with his mother’s family refusing to believe that he was in fact, the son of Zeus. This leads to an epic tragedy that deals with themes of power, truth, insanity and rage, as all Greek tragedies should. At the centre of Dionysus’ world is his group of loyal female worshippers, the titular Bacchae, who are ultimately driven to insanity by their benevolent god. In this particular retelling, it is not the gods who are at the centre of the spotlight, but the women. Women often play vital roles in mythology, regardless of the origin; they are mortals, goddesses, villains, seers and fates. They hold strength and agency, despite the lack of rights the Grecian women held themselves in real life. It is this notion, that women hold the power that drives this particular performance.


The cast is comprised entirely of female and non-binary performers, and is set as a framework, inspired by Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ’69. The audience is taken through auditions and rehearsals for Schechner’s piece, entwined with stories of the Grecian gods, the ideas of ritual and rebellion, a theme deeply rooted in The Bacchae, as well as the constant search for power, all deeply woven with references throughout modern history.


At the centre of it all, is women, and how stories of cults, powerful and oppressed women have challenged the patriarchy dominated world and changed the course of history. This is done by the inclusion of some rather surprising references to real live events. Early on in the story, we are met with Charles Manson (yes, that Charles Manson), played with spectacular conviction by Carissa Lee, who throughout the show is the embodiment of all Dionysus represents and stands for. The audience gets a view into how ‘Charlie’ bewitches the mind of his followers – who become his own Bacchae, and gains their love and their devotion, to commit the crimes that they inflicted upon the world in the 60s and 70s. Other real life events such as the Kent State Massacre, The Vietnam War, and the Patricia Hearst Kidnapping are woven throughout the story, with the idea that the story itself is about power and rebellion, often conflicting notions that have been battling each other since the dawn of time, and keep progressing on and on, never ending.


It is clear early on that each and every performer, no matter their role, as put their heart and soul into this performance. It is not only a delivery of text, but rather emotion, state of mind and the conviction in the actors’ bodies and spirits that really set this piece apart. The use of vocals to simulate rising tensions between battling foes, and the imagery of physical and vocal representations of hysteria and mental illness in women is something that needs to be witnessed. Modern songs such as California Dreaming, Gypsies Tramps and Thieves, and Bad Moon Rising not only provide a soundtrack to the piece, but also help to give the audience a sense of the time and the emotions stirring within the cast. In addition to voice and song, the body itself plays a rather starring role in the performance, particularly the use of interpretive movement when depicting the gruesome Tate Murders by the Manson Family, as well as visiual representation of mental illness and insanity in all its stages.


The entire cast should be applauded on their dedication to their roles, and the ability to evoke such emotion at what appears to be the simplest of ease. Special mentions to again to Carissa Lee as Charlie and her outstanding delivery of dialogue; Kerith Manderson-Galvin, as Richard Schechner, who did not once slip out of character, even when ‘off stage’; and Eleanor Howlett in her commanding role of Pentheus, and the personification of power throughout the ages. But this show would be nothing without the intricate workings of the entire cast telling this thought and spirit provoking piece as one.


This stunning and powerful working of rebellion, the strength of women and the tenacity and power in rebellion should not be missed!

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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