Review: Cumming’s triumphant Greek god

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Dressed in a slinky gold kilt, long curly wig and brash make-up, Alan Cumming wowed an expectant audience at the opening night of the London run of David Greig’s new adaptation of the Greek classic, The Bacchae.

Fresh from a run at the Edinburgh International Festival the production, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, has transferred to the unassuming Lyric Hammersmith for a further two weeks.

Cumming stars as Dionysus, the playful, androgynous god of wine, dance, sex and good times.

The play follows on from the myth of the birth of Dionysus: fathered by Zeus, who impregnated a mortal woman from Thebes, Semele.

Semele died when she asked to see the god in all his splendour and was killed by his thunderbolt.

Zeus rescued the foetal Dionysus from his burning mother’s body and sewed him into his thigh until he was ready to be born.

Semele’s family, members of the house of Cadmus, never believe it was Zeus that impregnated her, believing the story to be a cover-up for some moral slip-up.

As the play opens, Dionysus has come home with his cult of female followers, the Bacchae, to clear his mother’s name in Thebes and demand that its inhabitants recognise him as a god.

The central tension is between Dionysus and Pentheus, King of Thebes, whose stubborn and tyrannical nature eventually leads to his destruction and that of his entire family.

Arriving on stage suspended upside down in mid-air, bare buttocks on display, Cumming is instantly captivating.

His eyes sparkle mischievously as he teases the audience about his effeminate appearance in a witty aside: “Man, woman, it was a close run thing,” he says, describing how he has taken on human shape to visit Thebes.

“I am the Scream” he declares, Grieg’s own take on the god’s traditional nickname, The Roarer, perfectly encapsulating the spirit of ecstatic release he brings about in his followers and his crossing of gender boundaries throughout the play.

Dionysus as a character is hard to pin down: he is both male and female, outsider and insider, man and god.

The role is perfect for the charismatic, pansexual Cumming who has previously declared himself to be ‘the acceptable face of sexual ambiguity.’

The show marked his return to the Scottish stage after sixteen years.

He performs the choral interludes as if he is a glam rock star, with the Bacchae, a chorus of soulful, sassy black women in scarlet dresses, as his backing singers.

Two hours flies by as John Tiffany’s modern visual imagery and stunning cast bring the 2,400 year old play back to life.

The staging is brash and brilliant, while Greig’s adaptation of Ian Ruffell’s translation is, for the most part, spot on and captures the comic-tragic balance of Euripides’ text brilliantly.

The set is sparse but serves its purpose, and at one point the entire stage is ablaze – a neat little pyrotechnic trick.

Compared with the complexity of modern stagecraft, The Bacchae might seem simple, primitive and sometimes even crude.

In Ancient Greek tradition, the action happens off stage, with a messenger arriving afterwards to describe the tragic events.

But the story still flows well and is full of such delightful scenes as when Dionysus dresses up the uptight Pentheus as a woman so that he may go and spy on the Bacchic women.

Dionysus declares it a “transvestite mission.”

Cumming is without a doubt the star of the show, but his chorus of Bacchae also deserve due credit for moving the story along, with the help of Nigel Lilley’s rock/soul score.

Excellent performances also come from Tony Curran as the misguided tragic ‘hero’ Pentheus, and Paola Dionisotti as his mother Agave.

We can try to draw modern morals from this ancient tale, and many do.

What does it say about our relationship with religion, our understanding of ourselves, the boundaries between male and female?

Similarly, we could simply take away from it that bad things can happen if you get drunk. As Dionysus says: “Every man must lose himself sometimes”

Equally so, it is just as enjoyable to sit back and become absorbed in a what has always been a brilliant story, in a dazzlingly glamorous, revamped form.

The Bacchae is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, until September 22. Box office: 08700 500 511.