Our first performance of the 2024 summer season is a production of The Bacchae, a Greek tragedy by Euripides, first performed in 405BCE.

Here, director Richard Spaul explains why and how he has brought the original work to life as an open-air promenade production with themes horrifyingly pertinent in today’s world.

Richard, tell us about The Bacchae. Does the play have importance for us even nowadays?

The Bacchae is one of the most powerful and shocking plays in the whole of Greek Theatre.

It’s about Dionysus – Bacchus in Roman myth – God of Wine, Revelry and Excess. The Theban state and its king Pentheus disapprove, and try to repress the god and his women followers.  On the hillside overlooking Thebes, terrible violence ensues.

The play deals with the dark side of human behaviour and with the consequences of trying to repress that. This theme – of the conflict between state/authority/order and human desire for pleasure, release, ecstasy, sexuality – has been played out endlessly through the ages. So the play is as important now as it has ever been.

Picture: Melissa Pierce Murray

Clearly the material in the performance is only occasionally the original ancient Greek! Where does the text you use come from?

I’ve done the translation from the original Greek, and and have tried to achieve something very simple.

The extant translations usually try to capture something of the original Greek ‘poetics’. I can understand that, but the result is usually stilted and inaccessible. 

I’ve instead tried to create words which real people might – under intense emotional pressure – actually say. I’m hoping that style will be helpful to the performers doing it and to the audience hearing it. I’m also hoping that the ‘translation’ won’t be noticed at all during performance!

What’s been your process of developing the performance from text-on-the-page to a living work?

The performers of the in situ: company are invited to learn the text before we even start working on it – so there is never any ‘on the page’. I’ve never liked the idea of ‘from page to stage’ and don’t understand why it is still so often assumed to be an effective process of theatre-making.

Having learned the text, we enter the rehearsal process. This extends over nine months of the performers exploring voice, movement, image-making – and psychology – during the rehearsal process. They make their own decisions, individually and collectively, as to how the material might be explored. 

In our final on-site rehearsal period, we connect up all those possibilities to create a continuous whole which is the show.

Picture: Melissa Pierce Murray

in situ: very often chooses to perform plays which are centuries – in this case millennia – old, but which reflect contemporary themes. Which themes of The Bacchae are relevant today? 

Let me focus on two linked themes – women and violence.

The followers of Dionysus, including Pentheus’s mother Agave, are all women. Some of them are his ‘groupies’ and some have been driven mad by him and are worshipping him in a state of frenzied possession. It is these women who commit the acts of barbarous violence at the play’s terrifying culmination. So the play is a very powerful exploration of women’s issues and women’s place in society. It has sometimes been seen as a proto-feminist text – women are certainly active and powerful in it. 

But it seems to me to be far more problematic and complex than that. For there are many situations and events in history in which women have been the instruments of charismatic male leaders – and this is precisely what happens in The Bacchae. One frightening point of reference for us here has been Charles Manson and ‘The Family’ – young, vulnerable women under the sway of a psychopathic male leader and committing acts of horrific violence. These women are a complex mix of perpetrator and victim. This is the world of The Bacchae.

As in much of in situ:’s work, the performers in The Bacchae mix and match roles throughout. Can you say more about that approach? 

Rather than playing single specific roles as in conventional modern theatre and television, in situ: performers play multiple roles, continually merging from one to another, sometimes representing one or other of the individual characters, sometimes an anonymous mass.

I feel this creates a more powerful spectacle and focusses the audience’s mind on the deep structures and forces at work in the play, highlighting archetypes of human experience rather than the details of individual psychologies. 

Picture: Melissa Pierce Murray

Why are you staging the production in the open air and on the steep inclines of Wormwood Hill? What do you hope this will add to the audience’s experience?

We are called in situ: because of our commitment to creating work outside ordinary theatre spaces. This allows us to offer dramatic experiences, perspectives and environments which are otherwise simply impossible.

In our performance of The Bacchae, the audience are actually amongst the trees and birds and leaves of a real hillside. Imagine the expense and trouble of trying to ‘fake’ all that in a conventional theatre space. Far more effective to take the work out into the landscape itself.

We’ve enjoyed a very long and fruitful relationship with Cambridge Past Present and Future, who take care of Wormwood Hill in the beautiful Wandlebury Country Park, where we are performing. We are very lucky to have access to such a fascinating space.

One crucial aspect of this current production is the work of professional sculptor, Melissa Pierce-Murray, who, as well as being a performer, has produced some wonderful objects which will be part of the performing environment. So we have an exciting chemistry of sculpture, natural environment, performers and a powerful text. This is not something which can in any wat be replicated in a conventional theatre – and that is one reason why people want to come and see the play.

Can we look forward to in situ:’s signature choral and choreographed work as part of the performance?

Yes. Our voice and movement work, along with the site – trees, wind, birds, leaves, possibly the rain (hope not!) and the big perspectives up and down hills and through trees – create possibilities for exciting imagery, sound and action. 

Chorus and choreography are essential parts of Greek tragedy as it was originally performed– traditionally the Chorus speak, sing, chant together as well as moving and dancing together. Nowadays this kind of show is associated with musical theatre, but we draw from the tradition to create a very different form of performance – a Tragedy with the power and grandeur to match the remarkable setting we perform in. 

Picture: Melissa Pierce Murray

Finally, Richard, The Bacchae deals with death in its most brutal form. What was your motivation for wanting to create a show which challenges the audience in this way?

What The Bacchae challenges us to face is serious stuff about the realities of life. Anyone with a head and a heart will be well of aware of that, and will be aware that there are terrible violent realities in many parts of the world, even as we speak.

I want to create theatre which acknowledges, addresses and ‘works through’ these aspects of life, and I feel this is one of the main purposes of art. Perhaps that is one distinction between entertainment and art. Entertainment cheers people up and takes our minds off our difficult lives. Art addresses difficult realities, often seeking new and experimental forms to do so. 

Both have a place. But I know which one I’m more interested in.