A night out clubbing is sort of like a visit to a cult. The rituals begin at home, where club-goers put on makeup and dress eccentrically. They meet up with friends and prepare for the night ahead, making sure they have nothing to do the next day, recovering from the ecstasy of last night. The club is usually a dark space downstairs, sealed off from the rest of the world where the rising and setting sun has no effect. The night begins slowly, maybe a little awkwardly, as the space fills up and the music swells. Pills and drinks get passed around and consumed as the club kicks in to full swing. Dancers lose themselves to the loud, thumping music, the flashing and strobing lights distorting any sense of reality and smoke fills the space, dimming faces and bodies to shadows. Music is worshipped like gods who are paid respect through dance moves. People dance themselves to exhaustion and the night seems never to end, until they emerge from the basement into the harsh daylight. Reality is restored until the next visit.
Playing at St Kilda’s Theatre Works, Adena Jacobs’ latest production The Bacchae begins with a flickering strobe light, before the stage darkens and we hear the breathing of a respirator. The stage is split into two levels like a club with a main dance floor down below and a stage up top. The band sits stage right, two violinists, a cellist, pianist and drummer. On the top stage a girl is lying down wearing a respirator. She’s painted gold and the spotlight above illuminates her so gradually that I was leaning forward to gawk at her. A friend comes by and removes a bull’s skull from her like a midwife taking out a stillborn.
Eve Nixon enters next and delivers a rambling monologue about waking up late and getting ready in a hurry, snoozing her alarm clock and burning her vegemite toast. She switches her tone and delivers an authoritative statement: “I am the God Dionysus, Dionysus Son of Zeus. If you do not believe me I will punish you.”
As the audience, we’re subjected to bizarre and nightmarish rituals, sexual ecstasy and vibrant light shows, fit to the band’s atmospheric score. Borrowing heavily from the themes of Euripides final epic The Bacchae (but loosely from its narrative) Jacobs has crafted a metaphoric interpretation of the ancient tragedy, both densely symbolic and a stunning visual spectacle.
The Bacchae was originally written around 400 BC and first put on after Euripides death. Euripides wrote it while supposedly living in solitude in cave after exiling himself. The play tells the story of the arrival the God Dionysus. Dionysus has possessed the women of Thebes and taken them away to the hills, where they indulge in cultish Bacchic rituals, live without rules and are prone to fits of violent rage. Pentheus, the town king, arrests a man who claims to be Dionysus, before Pentheus himself is possessed, dressed up as a woman and lead up to the hills because he wants to spy on the women. It’s there that Pentheus is attacked and killed by his own mother Agaue. She, in a fit of ecstasy, doesn’t realise what she’s done until it’s far too late. Dionysus closes the play by scorning the people for not taking him seriously.
Euripides compelling plot is entirely absent from Jacobs’s interpretation. Even the play’s themes are adjusted. Where Euripides was concerned with the two sides of human nature, one which abides by rules and the law, and the other which gives itself over to nature, Jacobs demonstrates this dichotomy through the worshipful dancing and visual cues. The girls in the play, played by high school students as part of St Martins Youth Arts Centre, strip to their underwear, lather each other in body paint and writhe to the music. They do this mostly with deadpan expressions on their faces, showing zombie-like subservience instead of enjoyment.
Chloe Greaves’s costuming work is a perfect mesh of bizarre and meaningful. In one particularly frenetic dance number towards the end, the cast are half-naked, some lathered in gold paint; one dons Mickey Mouse head and gyrates on top of the stage while another wears half a Santa costume, with one of the girls bouncing up and down on her lap. The costumes sometimes push into the comically absurd, for instance when the girls run out with tails attached to the front of their bodies like big furry dicks which they flop around, even using them to piss on one of the girls dancing sensually in a blow-up kiddie pool.
The costuming work and performances are perfectly complimented by Danny Pettingill’s lighting design. As the lights gradually lit the stage, the cast were revealed as vague silhouettes before coming into full focus. Fitting Jacobs’s themes about objectification and perception of women, this allowed the audience to form expectations of what we were about to see, before we could actually see it. One particular dance number towards the end illuminated the Bacchic women lathered in thick body makeup, stockings pulled over their faces and black hats tight over their skulls. Watching the doll-like girls do a militaristic dance was especially disturbing.
Adena Jacobs’s production of the Bacchae situates itself in a kind of limbo between a contemporary and ancient setting. It reflects a modern night club setting, but the rituals and imagery suggest ancient rites. It’s this strange meshing of starkly different settings that create a unique dreamscape, and a captivating performance to watch.