June 27, 2008

Theatre Reviews: A Divine Feast of Sensual Delights

By Joyce McMillan







IT WAS a fabulous, gaudy night in Aberdeen when Alan Cumming climbed back into his famous gold kilt, descended upside-down and bare-bottomed to the stage like a true Hollywood god diving to Earth, and gave the city's audiences a performance to remember, in the revival of the National Theatre of Scotland's controversial and spectacular version of Euripides's The Bacchae.

First seen during last year's Edinburgh Festival, John Tiffany's glittering show is now on its way to New York via Inverness; and if it remains the flawed, uneven theatrical masterpiece it obviously was last summer, it's still a tremendous piece of showbusiness: brave, clever, camp and visually breathtaking.

The show's problems lie deep in the imagery with which Tiffany has chosen to surround the story of Dionysus, the rejected god of sex, sensuality and polymorphous pleasure, who returns to his native city of Thebes to seek revenge. According to the play's writer, David Greig, the serious purpose of this show is to challenge the immature and chaotic attitudes to sensual indulgence that still plague our society today, and lie at the root of our problems with alcohol and sex.

On stage, though, that purpose is smothered in imagery that never makes it clear that the city of Thebes echoes the uptight, cash- driven society in which most British people live today, and it does not evoke the self-destructive madness of our own weekend attempts at escape. Tiffany's Dionysus focuses instead on a camp challenge to the rigid, gangsterish attitude to masculinity represented by the Theban prince Pentheus. And his wildly sensual female followers, the Bacchae, are played by nine fabulous black actresses in glittering red who express themselves only through gospel music, a form specifically designed to tame and domesticate the sensual female voice in the service of conventional religion.

If the production's imagery fails to connect with the deepest potential of the story, though, everything about the surface of the show is witty, extreme, and completely memorable; and the current version - with some new material designed to make the story tighter, faster and more lucid - achieves a stronger and more frightening theatrical impact than last year's staging. In particular, Cumming has grown impressively into the role of Dionysus - he is as camp and provocative as ever, but now with a new dimension of steely, earth- shaking rage that makes the burning of Thebes and the horrible destruction of Pentheus all too credible.

The rapturous reception the show received in Aberdeen demonstrates just what can be achieved, in terms of building new audiences and new relationships with them, when the National Theatre of Scotland takes its most spectacular and controversial work out on the road in Scotland. Next week, this show reaches Manhattan, where it will no doubt be cheered to the echo. But the cheers of the Aberdeen audience are at least as important to the bright future of Scotland's National Theatre; and perhaps even more rewarding.

It was Shakespeare, of course, who first invented the idea of the "gaudy night". He coined the phrase to evoke the blazing, destructive passion that bound the Roman general Mark Anthony to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; and if ever a play of Shakespeare's dramatised the archetypal conflict between Pentheus and Dionysus - between the cold demands of Roman diplomacy and politics, and the wild flame of physical passion - then Anthony and Cleopatra is it.

Mary McCluskey's intense one-hour version for the Oran Mor lunchtime Classic Cuts season, which ends this weekend, focuses tightly on the conflict within Anthony between Rome and Egypt, duty and love; and if it tangles too much and for too long with the Byzantine complexities of the play's long-drawn out finale, it still evokes the central drama with memorable force. In Kenny Miller's sensuously candle-lit production, former Citizens Theatre diva Lorna McDevitt is in sensational form as the beautiful and manipulative queen, her magnificent bosom heaving its way towards the final encounter with the asp in a way that makes Anthony's passion wholly explicable. Andrew Clark roars and suffers convincingly as Anthony; and Candida Benson heroically carries the rest of the narrative, as a combined version of all the play's loyal advisers, messengers and servants.

When it comes to sensual pleasure, though, no subject - not even sex - is more important than food. Ankur Productions is one of the few Scottish companies committed to working across all the cultures now represented in Scottish society; and last week, in the lush gothic space of the Arta Bar and Restaurant in Glasgow, director Cora Bissett and her team had the brilliant idea of presenting Feast, a series of eight snippets of drama around the themes of food and family, accompanied by a generous menu of bite-sized tapas.

The result is a swift, richly-flavoured panorama of mainly Asian family life in the 21st century city, featuring elements from established plays - including Debbie Isitt's The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband - and fine little fragments of new writing, from Sarmed Mirza's deftly-crafted monologue for a little boy caught short after a family banquet to a piece devised from the cast's own stories about an obviously doomed attempt at an arranged marriage.

The acting, from a cast that involves some complete newcomers to the stage, is variable in quality. But Gia Avan, Sbah Shahid and Sanjeev Chitnis all create some memorable cameos; and the black poet Tawona Sithole comes and goes, with two poems of exile and powerlessness so chilling that they make us, just for a moment, lay down our forks, and let the food go cold on our plates.

The Bacchae is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, until tomorrow then at the Lincoln Center, New York, from 2-13 July; Anthony and Cleopatra is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow; Feast's run has ended.

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