A Response: The Bacchae | St Martins & Fraught Outfit at Theatre Works as part of the Melbourne Festival

October 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Language is dangerous. The written word can be formalised and structured. Its rigid connotations are far more fixed than an image, a moving tableau, or fluid bodies in motion. And so it seems Adena Jacobs would rather focus on the phenomenological and the semiotic rather than text itself. She is freed in this space of symbols and is empowered in the bodily response she can generate though sound. This binocular approach to theatre making produces an experience that is felt in the gut and one that also requires a considered response. There is potential for confusion on the audience’s behalf, but in Jacobs’ developed craft we are taken to one hell of a place.

The Bacchae, at Theatre Works, as part of the Melbourne Festival, is a production created by Jacobs and Aaron Orzech. It incorporates some 21 young women and one young man. It is a frightening spectacle of bodies and signs that provokes the audience and questions the way in which they construct meaning and project expectations onto young women. Some audience members left; whether they were bored or bothered by the production is unknown. The points at which they left were often at moments of uneasy imagery and the seemingly unseemly use of young people, in particular women, in such a way.

Melbourne Festival/Pia Johnston

Melbourne Festival/Pia Johnston

Women’s bodies have long been associated with fluids. Irigaray’s work is a useful cipher here. She explored language and the spaces in between words, as well as bodies and fluids. She argued that fluid mechanics was not a focus of physics due to its feminine nature, for example. By contrast, the masculine is often in the words themselves. The feminine is in the spaces in between. There is slippage and misunderstanding; meaning is hard to grasp in this place. So too is this a theme of Jacobs’ work. The body leaks; from every orifice liquid drips and pools; it is the abject. In society we fear the word moist — why? The feminine is monstrous. In tampon commercials the images use blue liquid rather than the more confronting red, or the urine coloured yellow, because to accurately depict periods is seen as revolting.

The Bacchae—as an event—is terrifying to behold at times; at others it is ponderous. It is not for everyone, though; but that’s okay. It doesn’t need to be for everyone and nor was it made for everyone. Why should it be? And criticism of this production as failed adaptation is erroneous and dull. To level it with the notion of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ turns taste into morals and is precisely the kind of patriarchal control system that the production seeks to challenge. It is bold storytelling through evocation, starting small and building to the inexorable bacchanal.

It begins with silence. And darkness. The very senses that we are to use to engage with this production are taken away from us and their absence is drawn out. Finally, we hear rasping. It is a clawing sound, like nails on the wood of a buried coffin. The sound continues wheezing, like wind through the eaves. Then a scene begins to form with the faintest of illumination; it slowly grows brighter but not by much. In the far-flung recesses of the back of the stage, a woman, in a gold bikini, lies on her back gasping for air — dying? It is unclear. Her breathing, exacerbated by an oxygen mask, is amplified for us all to hear. There is another woman here too, helping it seems. The first woman appears to fit slightly and the other woman plucks something from betwixt her legs. It is a golden rams head. It is held up. The god Dionysus is born.

Meanwhile, a spot of light appears downstage and a young woman, in modern dress, makes her way to stand before us. She talks, plainly, about her morning, her trials and tribulations, her aggressions and mistakes, her routine, the obstacles in her way. Although it is earnest it sounds rehearsed. That said, the simplicity of the monologue is compelling and contextualises the production for the audience. We are no longer in an ancient Greek myth and this is not going to be a simple modernisation of the text. She finishes her story by staring at us telling her naming and adding, “I am the god Dionysus, son of Zeus and if you don’t believe me, I will punish you.” And then she takes out her phone, and, depending on if the camera was facing forward or backwards, either takes a selfie, or takes a shot of the audience. Either way the strobe light flash and darkness that follows is an alarming and ideologically charged moment. Is this piece about us, or her? And if a young woman says she is the God Bacchus, do we believe her? We dismiss her at our peril.

This is the last piece of text for a while and the stage comes alive with the rest of the cast. Another young woman comes and sits on a couch. She puts Lucas’ Pawpaw on her lips, gets out her book and reads. Stage left are some instruments, including an organ, a cello, a violin and drums. The organist lets out a long, loud note that reverberates throughout much of the next sequence. The rest of the cast assemble stage right; they’re an eclectic lot. A young boy, a countertenor, sings the eerie top part of an already unsettling score, while the girls begins to lounge around and do everyday activities. They read, play on their phones, eat chips, drink water, and so on.

Someone brings out a large, inflatable pool. Then slowly, bucket by bucket, fills it with water. The proceedings get a little erratic. Some actors begin to strip to bikinis. Some girls spray themselves with a kind of glistening aerosol; others start to dace at us. Someone re-enters from a portaloo—another reminder of bodily functions—wearing a black ski mask and a false set of ‘abs’. This woman-dressed-as-man sits in the pool and smokes a fake cigarette — not the only phallic symbol to note. Those dancing at us look back and confront our gaze. They seem to give us what ‘we’ want—dancing, semi-nude females—but in so doing we feel bad about demanding it. There are no coy smiles, no pouts, and no lascivious eyes made at us; just a moving body, swaying. The young women’s eyes are cold but there is a rage burning within; they are waiting, they are making us feel uneasy and yet we do not know to what lengths they will go to confront us. Not yet.

They begin to leave and only the smoking character in the pool remains — as well as the girl on the couch; although, I cannot be one hundred per cent confident in this order of events. Regardless, we are drawn to the pool. A young woman is with him. They perform pseudo-sexual acts, chest rubbing and so on. She joins him in the water. Then begins a series of violent and affectionate actions that are some of the most confronting moments in the production. While there is no physical harm to the performers, the way they mock-make out, and then simulate the female’s hair being aggressively pulled down towards the water, only to go back to the mock-make out, is alarming. Just when the female is getting the upper hand of the situation, another woman-dressed-as-man comes and disempowers her. The cycle repeats.

Carla Tilley in 'The Bacchae'.

Carla Tilley in ‘The Bacchae’.

They leave and we are treated to a passage from The Bacchae. The girl waiting patiently on the couch is ready to talk. She holds her book in her hands, although she knows the piece by heart. It is the Herdsman, telling Pentheus (and Dionysus) of the Maenads. It is a glorious depiction of the bacchanal in its violent monstrosity, decadence and primeval glory; from calves torn limb from limb, to snakes licking stains; and from milk pouring from the earth, to honey from staffs; as well as wolf cubs suckling at human beasts, hunting and cries, and savagery; the possessed women running free. The delivery of this passage is a recitation and therefore effects more poignancy than if the actress has tried to ‘act it out’. She sits comfortably on the couch and lets the words do the work. After the show, someone suggested that this was one of the weakest moments; however, I think this change of pace anchors the production and demonstrates a desire and delight at the world that Euripides creates in his telling of the story. It is also a chance for the audience to listen to which part of the story the creators are most interested in. It is the women run wild that they wish to focus on, rather than the men at home plotting how to retrieve them.

Once we have finished listening to the excerpt the mood shifts. The couch is put away and a series of vignettes follow. They commence with the wheeling of a large circuit board onto the stage. A missing cord is connected and as soon as it is plugged in the stage shifts into an epileptic nightmare. Scenes are along the lines of, two girls dance and mimicking each other; one holds a golden gun, the other carries a golden phallus. They leave. Finally, a young woman with an obviously fake horse’s head dances violently in a strobe light. It is frenzied. The young man walks towards the controls and unplugs them. The lights snap to a placid state, the music stops, and the girl takes off her mask. She is not impressed. She was clearly enjoying herself. She stares him down and leaves. He waltzes around and then up to the raised stage up the back, plonks himself down on a couch and cracks open a cold one — a can of coke.

The women have now completely covered their faces with stoking-like flesh coloured masks. Their lack of individuality is upsetting to the viewer. It is disturbing watching these bikini-clad young women without faces move about the stage in a large group. They fall into lines. They begin to dance. It is a routine that we might see at any teenage dance school but here, with their lack of face—I cannot stress how distressing this was—and black bikinis and given the context, it is like a nightmare. Steven Moffat could take inspiration for new Doctor Who villains.

Once they are all dancing, once the dance has sped up, once we are unsure of where it is all going, it begins. Gold drips from between the legs of the primary dancer. The others begin to sporadically stop and after a few more sequences, they are all facing forwards, still. The lead dancer, gold now streaming down her legs, gets more frantic, more aggressive, faster and faster until she is slipping in the liquid gold. It has made a mess all over the floor and she lies in it. Here, Jacobs and Orzech provide some wonderful symbolic simultaneity. How are we to feel? Gold is good; periods are bad. Is this a prize to be desired? Or is it original sin? There are no answers; words could provide answers, but they are not used here. With words comes judgment. Symbols can change meaning.

A large leg of beef—red, white and taut—is thrown onto the ground and a baseball bat, a reoccurring image of the threat of violence, is used to beat it. With every swing of the bat the drummer amplifies the bashing. Over and over and over, the meat is beaten—another metaphor? Who can tell—while the drumming echoes throughout the theatre. Unwieldy but direct the young woman displays her strength. The meat is thrown into the pool.

Everyone leaves.

From here on in the production takes a turn as it moves towards its finale. A tarp-covered inflatable giant face is activated and fills the sometimes-cavernous space at Theatre Works. It balloons upwards and outwards in a grotesque display of totem worship. Is this face Zeus? Is it Dionysus? Is it any man? Is it a man at all? Which part of this is relevant? Its giant mouth gapes wide and lets its tongue hang out. Disappearing into the upper recesses of the face, its eyes are barely discernable. It is reminiscent of Ghost Busters’ Marshmallow Man, but as though it stood in a hall of mirrors in a house of horrors. It looms over what happens next. The women unleash their inner Dionysus.

Still faceless they enter in blue shorts. Attached are large hairy cocks that hang about. They begin to hump everything. They stand with their backs to us and simulate masturbation. One of them gets into the pool and several others pretend to urinate on them. This is one of those moments where more people left. But it is also one of the most enjoyable sequences to watch. It is awe-filled. We sit aghast. It goes on and on. They wave their phalluses around like frat boys at a hazing ceremony. Are these women mocking men? Do they wish they had dicks? Is this how men are perceived or is this how they really are? Do men actually have anything to do with this at all? And won’t somebody please think of the children!

The sequence is most distressing when the women have their masks on. Once they take them off and we can see their faces again, it’s actually quite fun. It’s only a piece of theatre. It’s only young people playing. Two do not take off their masks. One enters on high heels and in a dress; she teeters as she makes her way centre stage. Another grabs the baseball bat. The dress is undone and there is a large X across her back. The others round her. She offers her head and neck. The girl with the baseball bat raises it above her head. As she brings it down, the lights cut, and the drummer strikes a final blow.


The dream-like quality of the production makes is difficult to remember chronologically. Some of this may be out of sequence. There was also a moment when a large bag filled with normcore runners—budget constraints or artistic choice? —Spilled onto the stage and the cast rounded it as though they were hyenas at a carcass. This image recalls the excerpt of the Maenads doing a similar thing to a calf. And the calf leg itself makes an appearance. This symbol network provides a rich semiotic structure to the piece as images are recalled, referenced, changed and contended. This is where the creators excel.

Without words we must rely on what we see and hear, on a level that seems primal. When there is no language we look at bodies, we feel sounds and work out meaning. Although it may seem innate, this kind of system is actually intensely personal. Although people that grow up in the same culture share many connotations with a sign, others may have a completely different interpretation. Even the word interpretation is dangerous as it suggests there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’, and to try and ‘work out the right way’ to understand something turns you into a paranoid subject.

The devisors of The Bacchae challenge the audience and their meaning systems by providing a concatenation of images, to build impending dread, and also paradoxical symbols in simultaneity. An example of the former is the use of the baseball bat, each time used coupled with the beating of the drum so that come the finale, we equate the sound with the image of bat on flesh. An example of the latter is gold period blood, which sends a mixed message to our brain; are we excited by gold, or scared of the period blood?

The Bacchae is a lot of fun to explore. It is also a lot of fun to chat about afterwards. And it is a vital part of Melbourne’s theatre conversation. That said, I did not always find it successful, although; I concede that it is not always all about me. At its strongest, I revelled in its debauchery and stared wide-eyed at the events unfolding. At its weakest, I found myself thinking about words like concatenation and simultaneity.

I also found myself thinking back to Antigone and wondered whether Jane Montgomery Griffith’s text, alarming and powerful though it was, was too masculine, word-heavy to gel adequately with Jacobs’ intensely fluid and feminine direction. To be clear; I am not suggesting that one is better or worse than the other; or that one practitioner is preferable; simply that the two styles in that production could not be reconciled…perhaps not? Craven suggests something similar I think, in his way.

In Alison Croggon’s piece, she argues, “the boundaries between eroticism and violence, beauty and horror, masculine and feminine, are erased” in The Bacchae. I agree that it is certainly all of those things but add that the feminine is most apparent when the lines are blurring. And to that end, The Bacchae is a triumph.

Director Adena Jacobs
Dramaturg Aaron Orzech
Music Kelly Ryall
Set Designer Dayna Morrissey
Costume Designer Chloe Greaves
Lighting Designer Danny Pettingill
Associate Artist Alex Walker
Performed by members of the St Martins teen ensemble


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