Almeida's Bakkhai is a stirring but wayward production

The chorus representing humanity

Almeida | ★★☆☆☆

The Almeida’s stirring new production of Euripides’ Bakkhai begins with a promise. “I will thrill you,” says Ben Wishaw as Dionysus, clearly enjoying the rapt attention commanded by his shamanic appearance. His look: Jesus in drag, or a beardy Ophelia. Movement-wise he’s like Madonna, sporadically voguing throughout his opening monologue.

He’s got a bone to pick with Bertie Carvel’s Pentheus, King of Thebes, a peevish sceptic who refuses to believe Dionysus is a God. The two engage in testy, almost flirtatious verbal sparring, with Pentheus indignant as Dionysos runs rings around him.

The ten-woman chorus gives voice to humanity’s untamed nature. Wailing and yelping in complex a cappella harmonies, their song – beautiful though it is – is too clever, too elaborately orchestrated and too pretty to feel convincingly Bacchanalian.

This absence of feeling is also evident in the bloody final scene. Carvel, now playing Pentheus’ mother Agave, parades across the stage with the severed head of her son. It’s camp and silly, and conspicuously lacking in the pathos one would associate with accidental filicide.

The God of wine is not immune to hangovers. The bitter reprisals of the morning after are as much his forte as the indulgences of the night before. Pentheus gets his comeuppance and more, leading to talk of the excessive harshness of Dionysus’ punishment. But this is the point: our wild nature is not subservient to justice and its balanced scales. Desire exists. It demands to be taken seriously. If only the director had heeded Euripides’ millennia-old wisdom.