Taking ‘Bacchae’ back to basics

Ith three actors playing three roles apiece, a chorus of 15 and no scenery, Sir Peter Hall’s production of Euripides’ «Bacchae» opens the Epidaurus Festival on Friday. Featuring Britain’s Royal National Theater, the play is a co-production of the Hellenic Festival and the Cultural Olympiad, in collaboration with the British Council. «This play ‘Bacchae’ has haunted me for 50 years, worried me for 50 years,» Hall told a press conference at Epidaurus yesterday. «The most worrying thing about it is that whenever you return to it, it is even more contemporary. It is even more about the horrors that are going on in the world. I suppose I put off doing it for as long as possible, because I was frightened of it. It is, I think, one of the most difficult and one of the greatest plays. What’s difficult about it is that it’s so ambiguous.» Overstating one theme, explained Hall, can unbalance the production. He gave the example of Pentheus, «who is, in certain respects, an authoritarian fascist, but if you make him an authoritarian fascist, you lose the complexity of the play.» A production shouldn’t start or end with a concept, Hall believes. «It’s horrible and it’s not creative. That’s not my job; my job is to do the work and for the concepts to come out of it.» Bringing «Bacchae» to Epidaurus was rewarding, Hall said: «We’re not just touring; we’re imbibing your culture.» No novice to Greece, Hall is directing his eighth production at Epidaurus and his 11th summer production in Greece. Hall’s choices as a director all spring from a desire to maximize concentration on the text. This production will use no scenery. In any case, Hall believes that putting modern, temporary, built scenery «in this great architectural statement of a theater is slightly obscene, and I’ve dared this time to bring you 20 actors and six musicians and a lot of hope.» The actors will wear masks, which Hall believes is essential, and too often neglected: «The ancient Greeks had faces and they elected to use masks, and I think the question we have to answer is why they did that.» Masks, he explained, help us imagine the events that usually occur offstage in Greek drama. The set will be created by powerful lighting, though Hall expressed a wish to put on a play without artificial lighting: «I hope before I die you’ll let me do a play in daylight.» Apart from the lighting, and the music, which Hall said was «extraordinary, and very, very loud,» this production of «Bacchae» is pared back to basics. The slow movements of the Chorus and their rapid speech are also designed to focus on the text. As Hall said: «Even you Greeks do these plays in translation. It’s slightly like seeing through a frosted glass. But the important thing is the words, what the say, what they are, what they make you, the audience feel.» Closing, Hall praised his colleagues and paid tribute to the National Theater in London, which allowed the troupe to work for weeks on the play before designing the production. He also spoke with feeling about one of the privileges a director has: «People pay you money to live inside the head of a great genius for six to eight weeks. It is a huge privilege. And you do get to know plays in a much more naked sense by working on them than by seeing them. I don’t do my job for money; I certainly don’t do it for success. I’m not even sure what success is. I do it because of the pleasure of living alongside a great genius.» In what promises to be an exciting production of «Bacchae» at Epidaurus, the cast is led by Greg Hicks, David Ryall and William Houston. The play is based on the text by Colin Teevan, with music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.