When Euripides envisaged the part of Dionysus, the god of good times in “The Bacchae,” he was probably thinking of an actor with the pansexual charisma of Alan Cumming. It’s a moot point whether he was also thinking of Cadmus and Tiresias as tap-dancing old-timers in top hats and tails, or of his chorus as an all-black lineup of sassy gospel singers. But, by drawing on such modern-day imagery, helmer John Tiffany brings a bold sense of theatricality to the 2,400-year-old tragedy, giving vigorous new life to the archetypal battle between order and licentiousness.
For audiences at the Edinburgh Festival, there’s an extra resonance in Cumming’s opening line as Dionysus, who has taken on human form to persuade the uptight leader Pentheus to worship him as a god. Having flown down headfirst from above, his naked butt cheekily on show, Cumming rights himself, pauses, grins to the orchestra seats and says, “So Thebes, I’m back.”
It is 16 years since the Gotham-based actor has been on a stage in his native Scotland, cultivating a reputation as a party-living hedonist in the meantime. His return mirrors that of his character, determined to bring some spirited sensuality to the buttoned-up world of Pentheus, played by Tony Curran (“Red Road”) as a black-suited political minnow.
David Greig’s deft translation is full of such knowing nods and witty asides. “Man, woman, it was a close run thing,” says Cumming in his golden tunic, porcelain face and flowing locks, describing how he took on human shape. He maintains an androgynous hold on the play thereafter.
With the 10-strong female chorus, Dionysus is both flirtatious and one of the girls. With Pentheus, he is both coquettish and a gravel-voiced masculine rival. With the audience, he’s both chummily familiar — like the Emcee in “Cabaret,” the role that made Cumming’s name in Gotham — and coolly authoritative, particularly as the play moves toward its dark post-party finale and he reveals himself as a god with no need of our approval.
This constant inclusion of the audience and the seam of undercutting humor help make this National Theater of Scotland production (headed to London’s Lyric Hammersmith in September) an uncommonly funny Greek tragedy. Even after the fantastic coup de theatre when Dionysus has escaped Pentheus and the pale walls of Miriam Buether’s set burst into extravagant flames, Cumming gets a self-deprecating laugh by returning to the stage and asking, “Too much?” At the height of the tragedy, when Paola Dionisotti’s Agave is unknowingly brandishing the head of her own son much to the distress of Ewan Hooper’s Cadmus, she comically underestimates the situation with “Dear me, father, you are so grumpy.”
There’s something funny, too, in the all-singing chorus in their flamboyant red dresses who bring a funky gospel swing to passages that, for a modern audience, might otherwise drag down the pace. Even if some of the language has to be shoe-horned to fit Tim Sutton’s score and even if the pastiche songs skirt perilously close to “Jesus Christ Superstar” territory, the dominant effect is to emphasize the intoxicating feminine energy of Dionysus on his acolytes.
This takes its fateful toll on Pentheus, who discovers his feminine side (“How can I become a woman,” asks Curran, hesitating, “er, temporarily?”), so plunging the story into its tragic depths as the Bacchae smell blood. In contrast to the heady exuberance of the early part of the production, Agave’s wail of despair is all the more arresting as she realizes that too much Dionysus can be as bad as too little.