Greg Hicks brings a sinuous, androgynously playful quality to the opening moments of “Bacchai,” the Euripides tragedy here marking a tremendous return to form for its director, Peter Hall. But compare the lithe, faintly camp figure who first advances across designer Alison Chitty’s spartan (as opposed to Spartan) stage with the fierce and self-exalted god that is Hicks’ Dionysus by evening’s end. The mockery remains, but shorn of levity, an insinuating terror in its place. “I am part of you. I am in your mind,” he announces, at which point one can feel the corresponding chill that comes when a centuries-old play reaches across time, leaving even the least God-fearing theatergoer in its lasting grip.
Hall’s distinguished track record with the Greeks dates back to Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” a legendary National trilogy from 1981 that anticipated the same director’s even more epic Greek-themed “Tantalus” cycle of plays a season or two ago. “Bacchai” furthers Hall’s interest in a neglected repertoire (“Medea” is about the only such drama staged with any regularity) while honoring resources the National can uniquely provide. Nine weeks’ rehearsal is unusual in any context but turns out to be crucial to a staging that synthesizes Harrison Birtwistle’s robust original score with Marie-Gabrielle Rotie’s precisely calibrated movements and Hall’s audacious use of masks. And yet, what might have seemed simply an energized museum piece speaks to us in Colin Teevan’s new translation with a mournful, controlled fury, as if everyone involved knew the pull toward savagery described by “Bacchai” remains no less primal now.
A Dubliner whose lone previous National credit was last year’s ludicrous “The Walls,” Teevan seems to have had 9/11 in mind as he set about tackling Euripides. And why not, since the numerous antagonisms posed by the text include that between the ancient Greek and Asiatic worlds or, put more crudely, West and East. “We fear no more the justice of the West,” says a Chorus in thrall to Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and abandonment (and, yes, theater!) who operates according to his own laws. “For Dionysus shall prevail,” says this self-glorifying ruler of unreason, “though the how and when, only time will tell.” His modus operandi: to leave entire worlds in a limbo that our anxious, uncertain age understands all too well.
Hall acknowledges the play’s dual aspect as bitter lamentation on the one hand, black comedy on the other, the latter quality amplified by Hicks’ slyly unnerving smile. For all the funkiness of his line deliveries, the actor displays a notable sang-froid, shifting among roles and physical demands that at one point find Dionysus taking up a cruel and final perch well above the Olivier stage. (Between Hicks and Richard O’Brien’s ascending Childcatcher in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” vertigo clearly is no deterrent in the physically rigorous London theater of today.)
The drama’s defining parts here apportioned among just three actors, Hicks plays not only Dionysus, son of Zeus, but the ivy-wreathed Teiresias, whose admonitions find their own visual equivalent in the lashing shadows of Peter Mumford’s lighting. No less adroit is David Ryall, an avuncular, apologetic goatherd and also the doomed and questioning Cadmus (the former Theban king) of the play’s close. His grandson Pentheus, current king and Dionysus’ victim, is played by William Houston, who also appears as Agave, Pentheus’ mother. That doubling comes into its own during a climax made no less horrific by the fact that — true to Greek form — it occurs offstage.
It’s the production’s apparent formality that may deter spectators wanting the all-stops-out emotional wallow that Hall’s approach in any case precludes. That’s where this director’s insistence on masks is immediately justified, serving to control feelings that could well slide into chaos in accordance with the actions of the play (dismemberment and cannibalism included). If you thought a covered face was by definition inexpressive, “Bacchai” bruisingly suggests the opposite, and not just because the performers’ darting tongues come to resemble the snakes so central to the text. It’s as if the masks’ huge eyes, at once imploring and impassive, represented a dare to an audience forced to face the unthinkable, as we — with an accelerating frequency — are forced to do every day.