Friday, 16 January 2009

In Blood: The Bacchae, Arcola Theatre

In Blood: The Bacchae by Frances Viner
Director: Noah Birksted-Breen
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

The warmth of South America is breathed into the Arcola’s East End converted warehouse space with the advent of In Blood: The Bacchae, the centrepiece of the Arcola’s Brazilian Season which has been cannily timed to explode in technicolour onto the cold January London stage. Men whirl around one another as drum beats permeate the thick hot air and individual voices are raised and entwine into a melodic harmony.

In this visceral environment we are told the story of Besouro a young Afro-Brazilian man who used wit and subversion as a pacifist to stand up to the Euro-centric oppressive Government and became a street hero. He arrives back home after an inferred exile to take his revenge on the man who shot his mother, Gordilho, the Chief of Police; a seemingly racist, fanatically Catholic bully who longs for the sophistication of French food and wine in the middle of a dusty South American suburb. Besouro tricks him to attend a ‘Roda’, a meeting of capoeiristas, with Gordilho’s subsequent humiliation indirectly having tragic circumstances.

Beating through the heart of this tale is the Brazilian art form capoeira, a mixture of dance, martial arts and games here choreographed by Carlo Alexandre Teixeira da Silva, which each member of this cast seems fluent in. They tumble and sweep around one another like lion cubs, testing out their strength and agility with each encounter. It perfectly fits Besouro’s conviction, confrontation with no violence; instead it is a beautiful and almost spiritual way of sparring, combining deep strength with elegant intelligence. Accompanied by a berimbau, drums and song it is these moments of capoeria which are closest to the trance like state of the Bacchae although in a sense it is also the polar opposite; being a much more mellow form of meditation than the frantic feasting and celebration of the women of Thebes.

Indeed although this is a powerful piece, it is hard to see the similarities with The Bacchae and it is a pity that writer Frances Viner felt the need to attach Besouro’s story to that of the Greek ‘God of Wine’ and his frenzied Bacchalian woman. It is here that this piece falls into flimsier territory, trying to make a story fit a shape it’s not naturally predisposed to be. It never quite convinces of its connection with Euripides’ tragedy and instead through Viner’s attempts to do this we have a story which is too long in some parts and in others too opaque. This all results in a show which isn’t quite sure of what it’s saying – is it a Greek tragedy about the Gods manipulating humanity violently and revengefully, or the tale of an oppressed minority which faces fear and oppression from a ruling elite who are scared of the unknown? It could have been both but sadly Noah Birksted-Breen’s production does not quite reach either as a result no continuous momentum is really found and there is no thrilling climax to match the down fall of King Pentheus
of Thebes.

What we do have here however are some shining performances from our leads and a confident and fluid team of players and musicians who, with great grace, delight the audience with their charm and style. Daon Broni’s Besouro is as strong as a lion and he rolls Viner’s thickly rich lines around his mouth as though they are honey, presenting a very engaging and charismatic leader. Greg Hicks’ Gordilho is a bundle of aggression and nerves and his desperation is truly touching. An outsider in his own right his persecution of the Afro-Brazilians is heartbreaking to watch because he seems so pathetically needy of the love of one of them; the woman he killed.

Vibrant and gentle, skilful and at times all encompassing, In Blood: The Bacchae begins with Teixeira da Silva entering the space, his strong lone presence silencing the room in preparation as he moves around. Sweeping and ducking effortlessly he is a capoeirista with complete and utter control and as he stares individuals in the eye making a sweep of the three sided audience an instant and direct connection is made that is at the heart of all great theatrical story telling. With such a forceful beginning, it is a shame that within this passionate but convoluted piece there were not more moments such as this and that The Bacchae made it impossible to feel the true spiritual and playful power of In Blood.

In Blood: The Bacchae runs at the Arcola Theatre until 31st January
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