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The Bacchae Trips on Its Good Intentions

Marvin George's adaptation of The Bacchae

In the School of Drama’s current interpretation of Euripedes’ The Bacchae, director Marvin George attempts to translate the greek tragedy to issues of relevance to the contemporary Caribbean. It is an attempt born of great intentions, both creative and cultural. Alas as with so many things spawned of good intent, it paves the way, if not quite to hell, at least to some confusion.

The Bacchae is the tragedy of Pentheus, who meets his demise when he spurns and targets the celebrants of Dionysus, god of wine and revelry and Dionysus, in turn, causes his destruction. The link between the play and acts of mas is not a stretch and the links between revelry, revival, celebration of orishas and acts of rebellion in the Caribbean landscape are equally easy to make. 

The Bacchae - Edna Manley CollegeThese linkages are all intriguing elements of this interpretation of The Bacchae. George abandons any attempts at subtlety, making blatant linkages particularly in the costuming which declares that the region is owed much for the history of violence and deprivation, that has also spawned homelessness and a spurious educational system, etc. 

Additionally, the most successful elements of this play are the movement and music, which fill the production with a revolutionary ethos and shows an intriguing unity across various manifestations of Caribbean culture including Spiritual Baptists, Revivalism and playing mas. Intriguingly, the dancing spirit of Dionysus, moved with an ethereal and enigmatic energy and grace that, whether deliberately or accidentally, creates an intriguing juxtaposition between flag-waving in mas and in Rastafari. 

Angela Gay Magnus’ musical direction is spot on, re-interpreting Caribbean music from reggae, calypso and more to stimulate the play’s discussion about the role of music in Caribbean culture, acts of revolution and ultimately the play’s main aim - a call for reparations. Similarly, Patrick Earle’s direction of movement is refreshing, engaging and completely in keeping with the message and montage that the director aims to bring about.

Movement and music were the strongest elements of the productionThe problem with the production is, therefore, two-part. The first is the performances, and I say that with full recognition that these are student performers, and also with full recognition that these are student performers. The thing is, as students, there is much that the performers can be forgiven. Yet, as students of the School of Drama, so much more is expected of them. While a few of the performances are decent, in the main, unimpressive with clear indication that the students did not fully understand their roles, or were simply unable to embody them in a meaningful way.

George's message is ultimately betrayed by the play's endingA tragedy requires the audience to care about the death of the tragic figure, whether because we called for his/her death, or because it made us cringe/cry. In this rendition, Pentheus’ death makes no difference to the price of banana chips. Indeed, other than to realize that the women have clearly taken leave of their senses, the play completely fails to arrest any emotions.

And so the second failing, which is the even more important of the two. Despite the linkages between the portrayal of the Bacchae and Mas, in selecting this play, George ultimately chose a piece that betrayed his message. The play’s end allows it to play into all of the negative stereotypes about the cultural expressions which the Bacchae had taken on, especially carnival. It also does not help that the ending does nothing to promote the reparations agenda, which is George’s main point in the first place.

So, at the end of it all, I am left like Pentheus’ mother, wondering what has just happened and why.

The Bacchae is currently playing at the Dennis Scott Studio Theatre, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingson.