All images by Ctibor Bachratý
Slovak National Theatre – Drama, Bratislava, SLOVAKIA
Direction: Rastislav Ballek
Dranslation: Peter Lomnický
Dramaturgy: Miro Dacho
Masks, objects: Ivan Martinka
Set design, objects: Markéta Plachá
Costumes: Katarína Holková
Music: Marián Lejava pohybová
Movement cooperation: Petra Fornayová
Characters and cast: Dionýzos / Dionysus: Daniel Fischer, Pentheus: Milan Ondrík, Prvý posol, Druhý posol / First Messenger, Second Messenger: Martin Hronský, Kadmos: Dušan Jamrich, Teiresias: Štefan Bučko, Agaué: Anna Javorková, Zbor / Choir: Dominika Kavaschová, Michal Kinik, Michal Noga
What I Saw
Directed by esteemed Slovak auteur Ratislav Ballek for the Slovak National Theatre, in a new translation by Peter Lomnický, The Bacchae is a production of extremes. Ballek and his creative team present a mash up of the classical, contemporary, and the grotesque to depict a society at a crossroads, forced to “choose” between the freedom of chaos and anarchy or a restrictive, absolutist government.
Thebes is a stark and modern world of men in black suits sitting behind a large computer screen. Pentheus is the embodiment of Thebes – entitled, toxic, and prone to rage and outbursts. Set designer Markéta Plachá’s panels depicting the Pergamon Altar are arranged into a tunnel that spits characters center stage immediately. Pentheus’ opposite, the calm and genteel Dionysus, enters from the classical realm via this passageway in a chest baring toga, crown of grape leaves, and platform tree trunk sandals. The Bacchae arrive in grotesque body suits which they unzip to reveal the bodies of a woman, painted man, and a male little person (the vivid and occasionally outlandish costumes are by Katarína Holková).
For Slovak Program curator Júlia Rázusová the production’s depiction of a society in extremis felt particularly resonant in a changing Slovakia, “The Bacchae was a really powerful performance about man in moral conflict between two moral extremes, liberalism and absolutism,” she told me. “It’s an interesting confrontation for us because many people now have lost their belief and don’t have any moral rules.”
Rázusová quotes Ballek in her program note on the production; he views the play about the catastrophic fall of a civilization. “The important thing is that it, symbolically and in fact, concludes the monumental effort of the Greek spirit with a suggestive image of a fall into barbarism, the downfall of individuality and the polis, the city-state, of human society built on reason and morality. I am no expert, but even a layman will be struck by what the play describes, almost sadistically: a sudden, terrifying, undignified and incomprehensible decline of the individual, family, and state. The cause of all this is the influence of some new god, Dionysus, who – as it happens to be – is also the mythical progenitor of theatre as such.”
Dramaturg Miro Dacho, who is also represented on Andrej Bagar Theatre’s Catch-22, takes a more even handed view of the play than Ballek’s it seems, as Rázusová quotes him, “The Bacchae is a polemic about rationality and pragmatism on the one hand and emotion and hedonism on the other. A polemic about the right way to govern society, an open-minded to borderline anarchist way or a strictly pragmatic, almost cruel or tyrannical, that is the principal theme posed by the play.”
In a post show conversation between Rázusová, Dacho, and masks and objects designer Ivan Martinka, Dacho talked about how the play is an unusual offering since classics are not typically featured in Slovak drama as it’s a challenge for modern poets to translate into verse. According to Dacho the Slovak National Theatre does not expect to produce more classical productions either – they can’t force the directors to direct them, particularly if they do not personally connect to the work. In fact the entire body of Shakespeare’s work has not been translated into Slovak either. “We don’t have the time and space,” says Dacho. Ballek, who also proposed The Bacchae to the National Theatre, insisted on Lomnický, wanting a translation that sounded contemporary and not archaic.
Like Rázusová, the team sees the play as asking key questions that resonate today. Marketa believes the play and production speak to the fears of living in a global, changing society, “We are afraid of many influences, this is situation Bacchae depicts. There is despotic ruler, someone arrives who claims he’s God, but he still wants to stick to what he’s doing.”
“No matter what he does he’s going to fall apart,” added Dacho.
One of the “fears,” depicted in the production, an audience member pointed out, are people who have been marginalized. The audience member observed that Dionysus and the Bacchae who are presented as a gay stereotype and include a little person, are seen as threats. They also wondered if the depiction of Pentheus appearing in drag to infiltrate the women’s revels could be seen as transphobic.
The creative team did not agree with these assertions, with Marketa adding that though the depiction of Pentheus could have pejorative connotations, this was not the production’s intention. According to Ballek, Marketa said, the character “has to like himself.” Still speaking on behalf of Ballek, Marketa went on to say that under the influence of Dionysus, the moment has to have noblesse. Every human has x and y components and he is transcending himself.
For me, the scene in question presented one of the few instances in the production where these worlds of extremes meshed and where change and understanding seemed possible. Seeing himself dressed to resemble a woman, Pentheus questions himself and shows insecurity. Yet in his vulnerability he has found freedom and a comfort in himself, making his tragic end all the more poignant.
About the Artist
Rastislav Ballek (1971)
studied philosophy and sociology at the Faculty of Arts of the Comenius University in Bratislava, later also graduated in theatre directing from the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He has directed at several acclaimed theatres in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In 2003 – 2008, he was artistic director at the Žilina City Theatre. He authored the cult original production Tiso at Aréna Theatre (Divadelná Nitra 2015) and directed Kukura (Divadelná Nitra 2012), The Holocaust (Divadelná Nitra 2013) or Rosmersholm (2013). At the Opera of the Slovak National Theatre, he directed the world premiere of Martin Burlas’ chamber opera Coma (2007). Ballek’s productions and theatrical projects regularly appear at local and international theatre festivals (Plzeň Theatre, Sterijino pozorje in Novy sad, Serbia, New Drama Bratislava, Divadelná Nitra, Eurokaz Festival in Zagreb, Expo 2000 in Hannover). Ballek is twice-nominee for Best Direction in the Dosky annual critics survey. He earned Dosky for Best Production of the Season 2004/2005 with Tiso, written for and directed at Aréna Theatre. In 2017, he received the Stano Radič Prize for Discovery of the Year at the festival Kremnické GAGY for The Economy of Good and Evil, and his production The Principles of Newspeak earned the title ‘Počin [Poučn]’ at KioSK Festival 2017 for lighting design.