Backstage

Archive Feature: The Bacchae (2015)

We’re continuing our 40th birthday celebrations by reminiscing and reflecting on another iconic Theatre Works production, The Bacchae.

The Bacchae was Co-Commissioned by Theatre Works, St Martins and Melbourne Festival and Co-produced by Fraught Outfit & St Martins. It was performed from the 8th – 24th of October in 2015 at Theatre Works. The season of The Bacchae had a successful re-mount for Dark Mofo festival in 2016.

The Bacchae was nominated for 6 Green Room Awards in 2015;

  • Best Independent Production
  • Best Ensemble
  • Best Direction – Adena Jacobs
  • Best Sound Design & Composition – Kelly Ryall
  • Best Set & Costume Design – Dayna Morrissey and Chloe Greaves (Design)
  • Best Lighting Design – Danny Pettingill

Fraught Outfit is a Melbourne based theatre company launched in 2010 by artistic director Adena Jacobs. The Bacchae is a performance created as part of Fraught Outfit’s ‘Innocence Trilogy’. The Innocence Trilogy was a series of works created with ensembles of young performers for adult audiences. The trilogy included ON THE BODILY EDUCATION OF YOUNG GIRLS, inspired by Frank Wedekind’s 1903 novella, as part of MTC’s Neon: Festival of Independent Theatre (2013), THE BACCHAE, a co-production between St Martins and Fraught Outfit, presented by Melbourne Festival, St Martins and Theatre Works as part of MIAF (2015), and at Dark MOFO (2016) and BOOK OF EXODUS – PARTS I & II at Theatre Works (2017).

 

A city teeters on the edge of crisis. A god arrives in the guise of a mortal. A monster defies the audience. Boundaries collapse; old, young, boy, girl, human, beast, mortal, divine, good, bad, light and dark. A group of teenage girls pray to the god Dionysus, seeking salvation in the arms of excess. Around them a plague rages and their city burns, as all they’ve known turns to dust at their hands.

 

The Bacchae in its original form is an ancient Greek tragedy. It is based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave and their punishment by the god Dionysus.

Co-created by Aaron Orzech and critically-acclaimed director Adena Jacobs with a collaborating ensemble of young female actors and musicians from the acclaimed St Martins, The Bacchae was an epic, and hallucinatory theatrical experience. Through the perspective of young people, the core themes of sacrifice, worship, freedom and the inescapability of violence became brilliantly urgent and ever more complex.

The Bacchae continued Jacobs’ piercing exploration of lost innocence and primal fury. Invoking the choreographic operas of Pina Bausch and the visual tropes of contemporary art, this was a play that teetered on the dangerous frontier between terror and the sublime—a crackling declaration of revolution from the girls and women who have brought it to the stage. 

Owen Richardson’s four star review for Daily Review describes the opening scenes of the performance;

“At the beginning of this version of The Bacchae, conceived by Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech and brilliantly performed by girls from the teen ensemble of St Martin’s, a teenager (Eve Nixon) comes on and tells us about her morning — trying to sleep in, trying to find something to wear that isn’t too stinky. It isn’t a TV-comedy take-off of a young girl, she isn’t even “sweet”: she talks to us naturally and unself-consciously. Then she says, darkening her tone just a little: “I am Dionysius, son of Zeus. If you don’t believe me, I will punish you”.”

Many reviews praised the work, citing it as a fresh re-imagining of a well-known story. Reviewers commented on the youthful age of the performers and were divided over the impact their age had on the subject matter that was performed. The 12 actors from St Martins Teen Ensemble and 8 musicians who also starred in the production were all from ages 13 – 18. While the majority of reviews praised the young performers for their agency and critical commentary of the male-gaze, some reviewers found the imagery extreme and disturbing.

Richardson noted “There is a real sense of risk and limits in the exposure, in the excess.”

In an interview with John Bailey for Real Time Arts, Adena Jacobs discussed her directorial choices behind The Bacchae and her previous work saying; “In both works we’ve tried to avoid the idea of a group of girls turning on each other, partly because in my experience that’s not actually true. It’s a cliche. It’s much more interesting to see these figures wrestling with invisible forces, higher forces or unseen presences.”

On the topic of working with young female actors, Jacobs explains that giving young performers agency and space to create their own work is extremely important.

“It does feel like they’ve got a world unto themselves,” says Jacobs. “They’re in it together, which I think is really great. Both times I’ve worked with St Martins I’ve been really interested in allowing [young performers] to build their own rules and allowing them to trick and surprise us.”

Cameron Woodhead wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that he believed the production existed as a piece of empowering theatre for women – “It’s a big ‘Take that!’ to the male gaze, as is this modern response to the play, performed by a troupe of teenage girls. Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech lead these young performers into the fever-dreams of the women on the mountain (largely related in Euripides by men) in a strange commingling of the mythic and the mundane that transgresses every kind of expectation of what girls are or might or should be.”

On the divisive nature of the work Cameron said “It’s avant-garde spectacle marked by courageous performances. Like Dionysus, The Bacchae will likely punish unbelievers, but it amply rewards those willing to abandon themselves to it.”

In John Bailey’s review of The Bacchae he wrote; “It’s not exactly news that the adolescent female body is sexualised in popular culture and that young women are treated as objects rather than subjects. It’s deeply unsettling to witness evidence that these same young women are highly aware of this, though. Rather than protesting that objectification, they here produce a nightmarish burlesque that amplifies it to an excruciating point.”

Peter Craven for The Saturday Paper described the production as “weird and dark” and “breathless and unspotted and fresh”.

In an interview with the 2015 Artistic Director of Melbourne Festival Josephine Ridge and Adena Jacobs, Jacobs says “we have a whole lot of expectations about what young women are and often they are not true so I think the possibility for subversion is huge… They’re objectified all the time. We sort of see them from the outside. One of the things that came up in rehearsals very early on was  some of the teenage girls themselves were saying they are constantly being sexualised and then being punished for that very thing. I think there’s a direct parallel with that and The Bacchae.”

Two of the performers, Anouk Gleeson Mead and Bonnie Brown said that their performance was “pushing a few boundaries. It’s making the audience question what they’re thinking out of what we’re putting on the stage and whether that’s the right thing to think.”

The music was also noted in many reviews as a particular highlight. The Bacchae had an original score produced by Kelly Ryall, using acoustic and electronic music with live performance on stage.

Jacobs said the music “pushes the experience into a new dimension for us” emphasising its importance to the work. Bailey’s review describes the visceral live score accompanying a ‘nightmarish’ dance sequence as – “The bone-rattling oscillations of a modular synth crescendo while an onstage band has been beating out a tireless and insistent rhythm.”

The Bacchae Cast & Crew

CONCEIVED BY Adena Jacobs & Aaron Orzech

DIRECTED BY Adena Jacobs

MUSICAL COMPOSITION Kelly Ryall

DRAMATURG Aaron Orzech

SET DESIGN Dayna Morrissey

COSTUME DESIGN Chloe Greaves

LIGHTING DESIGN Danny Pettingill

ASSOCIATE ARTIST Alex Walker

MUSICAL DIRECTOR Danielle O’Keefe

STAGE MANAGER Edwina Guinness

ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER Megan Bostock

PRODUCTION Filament Group

AUDIO ENGINEER Leigh Stout

IMAGES BY Pia Johnson

PERFORMED BY

Members of the St Martins Teen Ensemble:

Bonnie Brown, Tove Due, Eve Fitzgerald, Anouk Gleeson Mead, Cindy Hu, Maima Massaquoi, Romaine Mcsweeney, Eve Nixon, Bridie Noonan, Lois Scott, Mieke Singh Dodd & Carla Tilley

MUSIC PERFORMED BY

Freya Boltman (vocalist), Julian De Marco (boy soprano), Nicholas Dugdale (boy soprano), Xiao Xiao Kingham (organist & pianist), Sarah Lee (cellist), Deborah Lee (violinist), Bella Noonan (vocalist), Zofia Witowski Blake (vocalist & percussionist), Lier Deng (violinist), Lara Stebbens (cellist) & Kelly Ryall (electronics & sound)

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