Tag Archives: David Greig

An experience more than a play? David Greigs Bacchae

As we move into the final week of rehearsal for David Greig’s THE BACCHAE I wish rehearsal could go on for longer. This is such a deep piece, as mysterious as the God Dionysos whose story it tells. As I watch runs of the play, I get flashes of extraordinary paradoxes as Pentheus the young and headstrong Prince, terrified of his shadow side collapses with exhaustion at one point refusing to acknowledge that there is any such thing as spirit, refusing to recognise that he is actually sitting next to a deity.

THE BACCHAE really allows us to consider and grapple with the conflicts between the material and the spiritual. Interestingly, as I watch the play, I find myself moving from one protagonist to the other, sympathising first with one and then the other. Ultimately though in the final section of the play we are left with a real woman having to come to terms with a horrible reality. Interestingly the point is made that it is not the wild abandon itself which causes the atrocity but her refusal to acknowledge the God and her subsequent repression of ecstasy. I suppose it is what happens when people get drunk and the demons are released.

What this play is is first and foremost is an experience. It does not feel like a regular play at all to me. It opens your mind and emotions in the way Dionysos says he does himself. Yet it does not do this in any kind of pofaced way. It is both ironic and funny

When I was starting my training in Chekhov Technique, I remember Fern Sloan, one of the foremost Chekhov teachers saying to me, “How could I really use my personal experience to access someone like Medea?”.  This is so true. When I consider the dark places to which the Bacchae ultimately travels, to ask anyone, and particularly young actors, to ‘go there’ without effective technique based on body and imagination, is to my mind both dangerous and irresponsible. What the technique brings up, though still profound and deep, is not tapping into the actor’s personal experience directly. Working this way, through body and imagination first to access feelings, qualities and sensations, allows the performer access to that depth without hurting themselves.

Of course this does not mean that actors who use Chekhov do not have to be cautious, and the issue of really shaking out the feelings from the body is a very important part of the work, to cleanse the body.

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Sarah O’Beirne and Shannon Mchugh [photo Melinda Szuts]

Come and join us in the Bacchic Dance!  The play runs from the 14th-18th of February in The Mick Lally Theatre performed by students of the NUI Galway Theatre programme. Tickets are available from Socsbox (091 492852) and Druid ( https://druid.ticketsolve.com/#/shows/ .



Bacchic Alchemy

16112706_10207462147903095_4596838258018514637_oTHE MOMENT when you have finished working through the play for the first time and then run it all is a strange moment. It is the moment when you get a sense of how this play will work in this venue with this cast. Just by speaking it, by acting it out, however roughly, a moment sparks when you realise the magic of the play in a way you did not know before. This alchemy gives you glimmers not only of the ultimate performances but the journey that the play takes and how it might affect a potential audience .It tests your decisions on composition even when not fully realised by the cast (as yet) and the atmospheres and qualities on which you have agreed. It is a stage along the way, a moment of achievement. Whilst it is far from ready, I was inexpressibly moved by its power.

Of course that first run through also tells us what practically does not work; e.g. clunky blocking and how far you have as a group still to go but nonetheless a stage has been reached. It is also a crossroads. It is now time to consolidate and sharpen, but also judiciously discard. It means honing skills and making firmer decisions. This production of The Bacchae performed by students on the MA and BA programmes at NUI Galway in the version by David Greig requires great voice and movement work, singing, character, a strong sense of ensemble ,the ability to play with the audience, fearlessly explore vicious humour, ecstatic joy and the grimmest tragedy as the play descends into hellish and human despair.

On that note, along with getting a full sense of the humour of David Greig’s version of the play when we acted it out this evening, I also got a stronger sense of the tragic trajectory as the remaining  human characters, Agave and her father Kadmos, realise their folly and are left to deal with the consequences. It is extraordinary to me that two characters we have hardly seen in the earlier part of the play are able to carry the weight of this tragedy, and yet somehow they do not seem like some kind of tagged-on thing; they are most definitely ‘part of the whole’. They speak for each of us who has suffered tragedy; who understand the nature of endurance.

The clarity of this is something I would put down in part to our work on M. Chekhov’s ‘feeling of the whole’ in our first few days of work. Composition is an extraordinary thing and even though we do not refer to it too much in rehearsal, I feel by getting people to get the story into their bodies a sense of the composition settles there within us all.

You cannot get a full sense of a play’s journey simply by reading . As Oliver Taplin says in his book Greek Fire, the Greeks make you face up to aspects of cruelty and cataclysm to an unbearable degree but within a ritualised structure which makes it bearable – just. Because it is poetic it enables us to face it unflinchingly. That is why Agave and Kadmos’ scene does not feel at all tagged-on. Because it is where the play is going.

The Bacchae by Euripides in a version by David Greig, is being performed at the Mick Lally Theatre from Feb 14th-Feb 18th by students of the NUIG Drama Programme directed by Max Hafler


Getting Down With The Greeks

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook describes directing as ‘having a hunch’ . Yet how many directors consider their work to make a concept and fit the actors within it, usually within a set and costume design already decided upon? This destroys the creative voice of the actor as artist and reduces them to a performing animal. As an actor once myself I remember trying to get my undisclosed feelings and ideas for the character ‘under the radar’ of a director, visible to me if no one else. All too often, the success of the actor is measured and perceived solely in how much he can encapsulate the director’s vision, very often a vision which is borne from someone who never stepped upon a stage at all. We, as audience, often blame the actor or the playwright for the disjointedness we feel when we watch such a piece when very often it is the director who is primarily responsible for this sense of ‘un ease’. Whîlst the director is the conductor, he is essentially part of an organic team. I feel this organic work has to happen from the start and talking needs to be limited in order that everyone can experience in their body and imagination what the play is about.


working with archetypes

I walked into my preparation week with student actors for our production of David Greig’s version of Euripides Bacchae with some preparation done but I knew that the evolving work within that four day process would be totally transformative. I felt I was more open actually than I have ever been before. Of course my openness did not mean that I had no preparation done myself, I had done a phenomenal amount of work, but very very few decisions, including practical ones had been made. Hunches was what there was along with one version of a song, and a strong belief in my cast. I think this faith in the group is one of the key things I have learned in directing students in particular, though it’s something you need at whatever level you are directing. Trust however requires a lot of experience and a lot of faith. It also requires an acknowledgement that parts of your concept as it grows and accommodates the group will evolve, change and develop.

Michael Chekhov composition work to find a shape to the work is particularly fascinating when you are dealing with a play which though structured, appears to have a complex narrative of dovetailing stories interspersed with songs and chants which in a way appear at first glance to bear little relation to reality as we understand it… Dionysos allows himself to be captured and humiliated, rather like Christ, even though he has the power to destroy them all. The play shows two polarised way of being and living with catastrophic and brutal results. It begs you to take sides in the debate.. Whose side are we on ultimately? How do we want the audience to feel? How do we begin with the city of Thebes? What does it represent for us now? is it a sad place, a happy place, a place of order and harmony or rigid obedience? The play pits the imagination, and wild creativity against the colder intellect, very much a Michael Chekhov theme. As if by magic, after our tableaux work, the story appeared to have a much more obvious simplicity than it at first appeared. It’s far from set though we can see the options. When I directed Caucasian Chalk Circle last year we made I think, four endings and did not decide on the final one until almost the end.

One of the aspects of M. Chekhov’s work I love the most is his insistence on the responsibility of the artist to open up issues for us and our audiences and for plays to have something important to say to us NOW. The answers The Bacchae presents, if it presents any at all, are visceral relevant and real, if we remember that despite the fact that climate change is a reality and Nature is becoming wilder and more unpredictable, one of the principal leaders in the Western World is a denier of that reality. This is not the only level on which you can see this play but it is one of them. Because it is primarily a dramatic poem, it has a multiplicity of levels on which it can be seen. that is what makes it both fascinating and tricky, because you don’t want to prevent that multiplicity by being too literal with one overriding interpretation.
In addition to the strengths of the group I was also aware of limitations in time and training. We did a lot of training in these first days but I was concerned about the question of mask work, which, besides requiring thorough and precise choreography required complete feeling within the body at every single moment . At any time when that expression of the body was absent the performer simply disappeared. But the masks which are only to be worn by the Chorus, besides being quintessentially part of the Greek Theatre Experience enabled a number of things; firstly they clarified character; second they enable men as well as women to play the Bacchae; thirdly they take us away from the idea that these are a gang of women who are out on a hen night but show them as wild female forces of nature. That can only be a plus.

looking so forward to continuing the work next week.

The Bacchae by David Greig after Euripides will be performed by students of The Centre for Drama Theatre and Performance in conjunction with Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland  at the Mick Lally theatre  in Druid Lane Galway Ireland from Feb 14th – 18th. 

Dionysos Bringer of Chaos, Agent for Change

When I was a young actor I was fascinated by the character of Dionysos , the Greek god of wine, madness, sex and death… Oh, and theatre itself. So I decided to write myself a one man show which I performed in the late seventies/ early eighties. The piece was called Dionysos Re-membered about a young man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of the God, the premise being that he had invited the audience to announce his new coming on the world only to be disillusioned and destroyed by the audience’s lack of belief in his assertion. On the one hand it was an imaginary look at a disturbed young man whose illusion crumbles and on the other a look at how we accommodate the wonder and spirit in our lives. It was quite funny in part, and very strange and intense. Scan 142420000I had recently been in a production of Equus by Peter Shaffer and was quite depressed by the idea that I felt the power of the boy was ultimately devalued  at the end, and wanted to address the balance a little. What I mean there is that the boy’s fantasy of riding an Equine God was not ultimately celebrated enough in the play, even though the psychiatrist who investigates is torn about having to ‘cure’ the boy of his fantasy in order that he might be happier and fit more snugly into society. I am not sure I feel now that Shaffer was so conciliatory to his West End audience, but I did then.

The lure of Dionysos was at the time largely based on the feeling that he represented sexual abandon as a route for social change; something very prevalent in the attitudes of young, particularly gay people, at the time. At the time for instance, very few young people would have supported the idea of marriage, gay or straight, considering it a repressive institution and part of the World of Pentheus.

Thematically I suppose in my piece I was fascinated by exploring the invisible and really giving it its value and not letting the audience believe necessarily that the conventional materialistic way was the only way to experience and have success in the world; that there was stuff going on on a deeper level that we could be aware of if we wanted to be, stuff that would enrich our lives ( and theatre also). It is not surprising that I eventually ended up teaching Michael Chekhov technique which supports and encourages this world view.

So I have always been interested in doing The Bacchae, originally written by Euripides, which tells of Dionysos’ return to Thebes with his wild women to exact his terrible revenge on the materialistic city where he was born but I never found a version of it that satisfied me. I would often pick up translations/versions of The Bacchae and other Greek plays, read a page and then return it to the shelf. I cannot tell you the number of times I have done that. And then I tried to write a version of my own but somehow I never got it finished. It was not until I found the David Greig version that I thought it was time to meet the play.

When you meet Greig’s version you meet the clash of the elements; of wildness and materialism; of convention and chaos; of the intellect and the emotions. The writing is incredibly powerful ; modern and tribal at the same time; on the one hand , poetic and forceful constantly moving forward as the irreconcilable forces of unbridled sexuality , creativity and wildness clash with the forces of order, harshness and repression; on the other, modern, accessible and humorous as Dionysos lures his macho cousin Pentheus to his doom, asking us all sorts of questions about gender and stereotype.

The academic and practitioner Oliver Taplin reminds us that Greek Drama always asks big questions about society; questions that the plays explore in ruthless depth. It shows us what happens when we make bad choices in dilemmas which are sometimes irreconcilable, in unrelenting detail. When I was young I believed, much as I liked the grandeur of these plays, that the horrors were overblown. Now I know such horrors exist for many of the world’s peoples. In fact there are Greek tragedies in every small town. The plays also suggest, there is no ‘free lunch’; there are consequences for everything we do. Taplin also talks about polarities which exist starkly and uncompromising in Greek Drama; love and duty; order and chaos; revenge and acceptance; maleness and femaleness. Polarities are a big plank of Michael Chekhov’s shaping of composition, so in a play, each character has a relationship to certain polarities within a piece, and perhaps that is where his concept was born, in the Theatre of the Greeks.

The play warns us that ignoring the elemental rawness of our lives, of ignoring creativity and having too formal boundaries can only result in doom. That the very determination to set a society in stone prepares it for an inevitable earthquake. It reminds me a lot of the environmental issues surrounding us right now… Are the Maenads not like an avenging Nature ripping the head and limbs from the body of the King of civilisation? It reminds me of the whole clash of experience, intellectual versus instinctive, made much of in Greig’s translation, and something very dear to my heart as a champion of the experiential. But perhaps the trick of working on this play with my students at NUI Galway  might be to suggest all these issues but maintain an openness. Certainly for the time being.

It’s exciting.