Melbourne Festival: The Bacchae

I didn’t take my eyes off the stage and am still trying to fully understand the astonishingly beautiful, often disturbing and totally unapologetic adaption of The Bacchae created by Adena Jacobs, Aaron Orzech and a cast of teenage women from St Martin’s youth theatre.

The Bacchae. Melbourne Festival. Photo by Pia Johnson

Euripides’s The Bacchae is about the god Dionysus coming to Thebes disguised as a human and generally wreaking havoc with the women of the city who head to the hills and get up to all sorts of drunken, sensual and violent mischief. An angry, and pervy, king dresses as a woman, heads are torn off and most of the action can only be described because it’s too much for moral and sensitive audiences.

If you know the Euripides play, it’s all on the stage, even though it’s told through live music and dream-cum-nightmare visions with a blow up pool, an inflatable Luna Park smile and blood the colour of gold. There’s only a page of the text, and after Dionysus’s birth from Zeus’s thigh, it’s told from the women’s point of view. The whole story is re-imagined with young women as all the characters. Dionysus – the god so often envisioned with a huge cock and women at his feet – is a teenage girl who slept in and doesn’t have time to straighten her hair.

Let that sink in: young women are the gods and rulers. Not only are they the possessed and riotous mob, they are the people who cause and punish the violence and chaos. And when they become drunk and out of control, they become young men – with long fluffy phallus.  If you’re a young man who wonders how young women see you, please see this.

The night I went, there was a school group in the audience. They were silent, in a can’t-stop-watching way. Do I even need to say more about the power of this production?

If you don’t know the play – and why should you?; embrace every re-telling as a new story – it’s a world where young women are the storytellers, the exploiters and the exploited.

It lets us see how they see themselves compared to how they think the world sees them. We meet them as their unique selves wearing denim and t-shirts but they become faceless, oiled bodies in identical bikinis. It’s uncomfortable to make the connections between the identifiable teenagers talking about Vegemite toast to the unidentifiable objectified bodies. Which is what makes it so brilliant.

Yesterday I was driving along Warrigal Road and stopped at the North Road intersection. There’s a place called Kittens Car Wash where young women in bikinis wash cars. A blow up sex doll holds balloons at the entrance. It’s a busy intersection in the semi-industrial suburbs and thousands and thousands of cars stop and see young women in bikinis washing cars.

This is why we need to see young women in our theatres saying how this isn’t the world they want to live in. The Bacchae shows us what they think we see when we look at them. They see the objectification, the reduction to sexual pleasure giver (not takers) and a world where they might have to wash cars in a bikini to pay their rent, uni fees or childcare.

And they’re saying no.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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