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Melbourne Festival review: Teenage girls lead brave and rewarding reimagining of The Bacchae

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In Euripides’ The Bacchae, the women of Thebes have been driven into frenzy by the god Dionysus, who arrives in mortal guise to secure his cult and punish those who will not submit to his rites. In the mountains, the bacchants revel and rave, and the city’s king, a priggish unbeliever, is torn apart by them when he disguises himself as a Maenad to spy on their orgies of wild dancing and primal violence.

It’s a big ‘Take that!’ to the male gaze, as is this modern response to the play, performed by a troupe of teenage girls.

Adena Jacobs and Aaron Orzech lead these young performers into the fever-dreams of the women on the mountain (largely related in Euripides by men) in a strange commingling of the mythic and the mundane that transgresses every kind of expectation of what girls are or might or should be.

The show’s eerie double vision is typified by the opening scene. Are we seeing the birth of Dionysus, with its slut-shaming and fatal violence, or is this the body of a girl comatose or dead after a night out clubbing?

That disturbing ambiguity collapses into the adolescent everyday. An ordinary girl is in a rush to get somewhere (Eve Nixon): she perfumes her pongy clothes, burns Vegemite toast and retrieves her favourite jacket from her sister’s room. Then she announces she’s Dionysus, and promises punishment if we don’t believe her.

What follows is a swelling musical sequence. A chorus of girls led by a boy soprano (Julian De Marco) sings a madrigal to Vegemite toast, incorporating live electric organ, percussion and a string quartet. The song dissipates and the girls sit around languid and bored, watching us, playing idly with their phones.

There’s one striking moment where a performer (Bridie Noonan) gives us the savage lyricism of the Messenger’s speech from Euripides, before a dream play emerges, riffing off the original on increasingly weird tangents.

Male violence and religious fundamentalism rise through figures in balaclavas with foam washboard abs. The girls gyrate and lacquer their skin. A wading pool becomes a site of indecent assault. In a sop to gender expectation, faceless rows of bikini-clad figures perform aerobics in manic unison, their leader falling to the floor as gold paint oozes from her crotch (an alarming image that returns us to the latent sexual violence of the first scene).

Eventually the girls go wild in a visually arresting bacchanal where the icons of feminine conformity are given a beating. Minnie Mouse heads are bashed up. Fake fur phalluses are donned and swung about. A baseball bat is taken to what appears to be a severed human leg. A huge inflatable clown mouth billows over the stage; the carnival rages on.

It’s avant-garde spectacle marked by courageous performances. Like Dionysus, The Bacchae will likely punish unbelievers, but it amply rewards those willing to abandon themselves to it.


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