The Lightning Child: Euripides with a modern edge

This ‘remix’ of The Baccahe may sound like tripe, but in fact it’s an intellectual riot.

David Bowden

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It’s difficult not to pre-judge plays. A modern musical ‘remix’ of Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchae, you say? Co-written by an edgy young(ish) playwright called Ché and his actor mate from Doctor Who? All taking place at Shakespeare’s Globe, a theatre better known (deservedly) for its faithful productions of Jacobean and Elizabethan theatre than the variable quality of its new productions? The omens for The Lightning Child, co-written by Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill, were not great.

Some of this trepidation was deserved. From an awkward introduction featuring Neil Armstrong rowing with his wife to a self-indulgent coda of Billie Holiday, the script possesses an unsubtle pantomime quality, at odds with its brutal subject matter and crude language. Its staging of Thebes in decadent ruin, under the thrall of the vengeful god Dionysus, resembles an overpriced Camden tourist trap, all mock psychedelica and tribal styling.

Yet, intellectually, it’s a riot. Euripides’ original presents a clash between Dionysus’ pursuit of pleasure and the doomed Pentheus who rejects his empty hedonism, placing the questions of civic duty and the necessity of state authority alongside, and in opposition to, the pursuit of the Good Life. Its own anarchic rule-breaking (Euripides unusually places the vengeful deus in media res rather than ex machina at the denouement), and pointed barbs at modern-day moral strictures, encourages contemporary rewrites without risking sacrilege.

The Lightning Child plays out this contrast in surreal, modern garb: Dionysus becoming a flamboyantly seductive Seventies disco queen, and Pentheus as a sexually repressed, ‘roid-raging gym bunny. Tommy Coleman and Clifford Samuel are both excellent as the respective leads. Coleman’s Dionysus is an embodiment of enlightened liberal attitudes towards sex and morality: ‘Quiet – you’re alienating the homophobes’, he winks at the audience at tales of his sexual exploits. Meanwhile, Samuel plays Pentheus as a villainous, macho misogynist whose casual homophobia makes him, rather than the god Dionysus, appear the religious zealot.

Yet rather than trendily subvert the play’s brutal moralism, Walker and Darvill bravely preserve much of its ambiguity. While Dionysus provides a seductive case for letting it all hang out, the vignettes explore the flipside: those whose pursuit of lives with greater meaning are crushed by the narcissism of pleasure. One scene in particular, which explores South African runner Caster Semenya’s ordeal when she was accused of lying about her natural gender, is extraordinary – pitting the cold rationality of the medical authorities, who insist she fit into a natural gender identity, against Semenya’s desire to find transcendence through sport.

Is it a provocative point clumsily made? Sure. Yet it’s a surprisingly bracing and astute portrait of a very contemporary flashpoint between the individual and society, with the state (or medical authorities) invariably acting as both arbiter and indulger, often capriciously leaping between the two. Semenya’s is the only story without a clear resolution, with the blind prophet Tiresias – the true avenger of this tale – offering her a vague path through the future. It’s part of a sharp recalibrating of Euripides’ own conflicted take on tragedy’s engine room of hubris, where humans must strive for knowledge for survival and meaning, and are simultaneously damned for it.

Early in the play, Neil Armstrong screams ‘I want to be sublime!’, when his wife chides him for his risk-taking curiosity, preferring him to stay on the known territory of Earth. The Lightning Child similarly dares to aim for the sublime. While this may incur some jarring, bathetic leaps into the ridiculous, it is nonetheless riotous fun with a deeply human heart: well suited to the intimate and very public experience of the Globe.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

The Lightning Child is playing until 12 October 2013 at Shakespeare’s Globe. To book visit the Globe’s website or call 0207 401 9919.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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