Teenagers dream The Bacchae

John Bailey: Melbourne Performance, Theatreworks, The Bacchae

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

Lois Scott, The Bacchae

There’s a long history in which adult imaginations conjure fictional teenage societies defined by competition and conflict. From Lord of the Flies to The Hunger Games, these are worlds in which larger structural tensions and hierarchies are displaced onto young individuals, who are themselves nonetheless rendered categorically distinct from the adult world (there’s no place for coming-of-age narratives in these fictions). It’s a relief to hear that Adena Jacobs’ second foray into teenage experience avoids this cliché.

Her first was 2013’s On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, a near-silent work of careful and particular gestures that fed on the restrained energy of youth forced into a state of self-discipline. Her latest is The Bacchae, entirely performed by 12 female performers aged 13 to 18 and eight musicians also in their teens.

“In both works we’ve tried to avoid the idea of a group of girls turning on each other,” says Jacobs, “partly because in my experience that’s not actually true. It’s a cliche. It’s much more interesting to see these figures wrestling with invisible forces, higher forces or unseen presences.”

The director says that both works are concerned with the ways that groups structure themselves and the “rituals they enact for invisible purposes.” Inspiration for The Bacchae directly emerged from the experience of creating Bodily Education. “That work was really restrained. It was about innocence and it was about our gaze upon these young girls. In rehearsal when we were dealing with this very detailed, delicate choreography we’d stop rehearsing and suddenly the room would burst into some kind of chaotic frenzy.”

Jacobs and co-creator Aaron Orzechs knew that this very energy would lend itself to an unpacking of Euripides’ play. Via a long improvisational process with the ensemble, the two have engaged with both the core themes and poetics of the original while remaining alert to how the cast’s “vision of order and chaos, patriarchal law and female subversion is entirely different.”

The drama of Euripides’ play centres on the violent god Dionysus and the authoritarian king Pentheus, with the women in its landscape fundamentally falling into two camps—the devoted followers of the former and the mad women on the mountain, who are unseen but reported upon. Jacobs’ reimagining distributes character across the ensemble while maintaining the problematic dynamics of the source.

“If we think about Pentheus as the first voyeur in theatre history and about that critical moment in the play where he dresses in his mother’s clothes and goes to the mountain to spy on the women, the provocation of that idea [in relation to] teenage girls feels fascinating and kind of dangerous” she says. “The idea of playing out the dualisms of the hunter and the hunted, god and mortal, man and woman through teenage girls felt incredibly challenging.”

One of the resonant notes the teens pinpointed early in development was the sexualisation and subsequent punishment of women. “I thought a version of this play where they are forced to be looked at in an erotic way but then are shamed for it was really interesting. That for me is one of the more striking and sad things that they’ve said. These girls have grown up in a world of iPhones and technologies which mean that they are plugged into a system that they can’t escape from, and they’re incredibly self-aware of it. They know that that’s the world they live in.”

This work, however, is far from a didactic treatise on gender politics. Text has been stripped back to a minimum and much of the work is music-led. “It plays out more like a hallucination or dreamscape…kind of like a post-traumatic memory of the myth via visual imagery.”

Euripides’ play was long considered one of the more confronting in the Greek canon, its bloodiness affording it some controversy (though equally making it one of the more popular texts in the modern age). Jacobs says that this darker edge needn’t be blunted when working with teenagers. “One of the main lessons that came out of Bodily Education is trusting that a group of young people can deal with any content as long as there’s a frame around it. As long as they’ve got agency, as long as they’re bringing themselves to it, the palette is very wide.”

Allowing them that agency, and providing a space in which the young creators may forge their own response to the text rather than accepting one imposed upon them, has been key to the work’s unfolding. “It does feel like they’ve got a world unto themselves,” says Jacobs. “They’re in it together, which I think is really great. Both times I’ve worked with St Martins I’ve been really interested in allowing [young performers] to build their own rules and allowing them to trick and surprise us.”

Melbourne International Art Festival: The Bacchae, St Martins and Fraught Outfit, Theatre Works, 8-24 Oct

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 34

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015