The Lightning Child – Shakespeare’s Globe, London – review by Carole Woddis.

For their final culinary delight this summer, Shakespeare’s Globe have served up something very gamey and `high’, a modern day `remix’ of Euripides’ The Bacchae.

Both Wole Soyinka and David Greig among others (add Philip Glass and the late great Joe Orton also to that list) have created versions in the past, Soyinka with the National Theatre in the 1970s, more recently Greig’s saltily camp Scottish music hall in 2007 gave Alan Cummings as a malicious, tinsel jock-strap wearing Dionysus another chance to show us why he is one of the most dangerous actors around.

Gender-bending and androgyny loom large in The Bacchae, written by Euripides around 400BC.  That’s not the only reason why these Greek myths remain so resonant 2000 years later.  Human behaviour doesn’t change that much and what the Greeks managed to explain away as conscious blows from cruel deities we now can only experience as Fate or Authority dealing us a bitter blow.  These Greek tales provide us with an altogether richer layer of imaginative metaphors about our human journey through life.

In The Bacchae, Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, the man who so dislikes women he bans their dancing from his kingdom only to fall under their and the Dionysian spell, undergoes an almighty biff, torn limb from limb by women and of all women, his own mother.

Now, one can either see Euripdes’ tale as a misogynistic tup at women and their sexuality.  Or as in Ché Walker’s big, belching, blousey and musical response (the first the Globe has ever produced), you can use it to show where Dionysian excess can lead: into addiction, musical destruction and orgiastic cannibalism (this latter including a vast and bloody carcass, supposedly of Pentheus, treated as though the latest celebrity chef cook-in, is both excessively shocking and brilliantly Swiftian in its satire.  It’s also the best dramatic advert for vegetarianism I’ve seen in a very long time).

But Walker, director Matthew Dunster and composer Arthur Darvill also do something else.  They tap into current cultural tropes musically, culturally and linguistically with filthy abandon and in a cartoon style which in the setting of the Globe with its young audience of standing groundlings proves an immediate, palpable success.  It’s recognisably of now and is suitably grabbed by the audience with both hands.

Add a mind-bending, outstanding Ladyboy narrator (one Jonathan Chambers) as a Trinidadian drag queen, a multicultural female chorus and protagonists played by British Caribbean actors and suddenly a load of racial as well as sexual stereotypes go tumbling down the chute.  There is no funnier, sweeter or more subversive moment than Clifford Samuel’s macho Pentheus in army combats gradually being transformed by Tommy Coleman’s wig-wearing Dionysus into a gold lame hip swinging, blonde wig wearing female.  Or more thoughtful than the short scene featuring the South African athlete, Caster Semenya underlining the closeness of genders.

At three hours, The Lightning Child is not without its longueurs.  But such is its vigour, it’s essential moral integrity and accomplishment, it’s hard not to recognise Ché Walker as a unique theatrical bridge-builder between the ancient and modern with a rare populist touch.

To Oct 12.

Carole Woddis © Sept 19, 2013.

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