Picture the scene: A man in a cream dress. Think Dervish - fitted through his slim body with flowing skirt in layers to the ground. He walks gracefully down a mound at the back of the stage and stops in the middle. Pauses. Clicks his finger in the direction of the ceiling and he is illuminated.
"Long hair, bedroom eyes, cheeks like wine" is how Anne Carson has Pentheus describe him in this, her adaptation of the ancient Greek tragedy.
He speaks. Tells us the story of his birth. Those eyes. A cheeky half smile. A blink-and-you-miss-it quiver of an almost pout. The quiver of an almost pout. You are seduced. This is Dionysos. This is Ben Whishaw god-like.
Had there been a hill to run to for drinking and carousing as the women of Thebes do to worship him, I would have, and I doubt I would be the only one.
Pentheus - a smart suited, collected, slightly arrogant tilt to the head Bertie Carvel - will not submit. He doubt's Dionysos' god status and bans the worship as irrational, which unleashes that dark side. And it is inky dark - but done with oodles of charm so much so that you both love him and fear him at the same time.
Dionysos takes Pentheus on a journey into the woods. More dresses and more hair. The hair. Never before has two men dressed as women, one tucking a lose bit of hair back in for the other been quite so sexual. When Dionysos is around everything is sexually charged, everything is charged with energy, a raw earthiness. Even the silences are charged such is the skill of our two leads.
The only fly in the ointment of this charmingly seductive and gruesome tale is the chorus. This is a full on 'Greek' style chorus speaking in unison and singing in between each scene. Occasionally it is beautifully emotive - there is a deathly realisation at the end which has an eerily mournful choral back drop.
But for the main it acts like a huge anchor on the flow and energy of the story. It gets tedious. When Ben and Bertie leave a scene you want to call them back because of what you know is coming.
I saw the first preview so maybe there is work to be done with the chorus. I'll know when I see it again next month but if you can endure it, the Bakkhai ticket price is worth it for our god and mortal alone.
It runs at the Almeida Theatre until Sep 19.
* Edited since first publication