An androgenous-looking man (who is also a god) persuades an aggressively heterosexual man to dress as a woman so that he can spy on a group of women, including his mother, who both terrify and fascinate him. A fabulously complex and seemingly modern piece of theatre, written 2500 years ago by the playwright Euripedes.
It’s a scene from The Bakkhai, performed last year at the Almeida Theatre in a translation by Anne Carson, directed by James MacDonald. I wrote the music for the production, one of the most fascinating jobs I’ve ever done, an education. In its original form, the play was an extraordinary and sophisticated piece of music theatre, recognizably related to but interestingly different from current forms. Almost all the singing was done by the chorus (played by teenage boys) which had an enormous part. Most modern productions either dispense with the chorus, or convert it into a solo speaking part. But we decided to stick closely to the original intention; so we had a chorus of ten women, half of them primarily singers, half of them primarily actors. All the other (mostly speaking) parts were played by three men. This implies some bizarre doubling; for example, the actor playing Pentheus, the man who spies on women, also plays his mother Agave, who has just killed him and comes in with his head on a pole. Interesting!
The chorus had, all of them, to be brilliant singers, because they were faced with forty-odd minutes of elaborate, rhythmically asymmetrical, harmonically strange a cappella music, a mixture of chanting, singing, yodeling, ululating, noise-making and choral speaking. Considering that the play is about a religion – the cult of Dionysus – and the chorus are members of the cult, choral speaking seemed an obvious means of expression. But it can be dull, flattening out the natural contours of the voice. We approached it (James’s idea) by recording the text line by line, each line spoken by a different member of the chorus; the whole chorus learned the exact intonation of each line, and spoke the text in unison. The effect of this was that the speaking was at the same time characterful and, in a curious way, an expression of the group. I made two bridges between this and the singing, one a rhythmic, percussive speech, and the other a strange speech-song hybrid, in which half the chorus spoke the text and the other half sang it, all in unison – the singing like a aura around the speech, hardly noticeable, but altering the emotional atmosphere.
The difficulty of all this for a modern audience is the pacing; for much of the time the chorus is on stage alone, and because there is no dissent within the group the plot stands still. Their contributions (‘odes’) are like monologues. Their emotional journey through the play is hardly smooth – from exuberance through butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth smugness, panic, misery, excitement, blood-lust, horror to pity. But only twice do they explicitly interact with the other characters: once with Dionysus (the androgenous-looking man/god), as adoring members of his cult, and once in the climactic scene, with Agave, when she appears having murdered Pentheus. Not realizing what she’s done, she sings exuberantly about her success in the hunt, while the chorus, who are in the know, react with a strange mixture of support and revulsion – a brilliant, disturbing scene.
To me the pacing is not a problem. In the scenes the action gallops forward, often making use of reportage; the language is plain, colloquial. In the odes we are invited to contemplate the current state of the action, and the philosophical implications of it; the language is heightened, poetic, and the texture of the piece fundamentally different. It’s a beautiful combination, and was surely the basis of the recitative-aria structure of early opera.