Bakkhai Q&A with Bertie Carvel, Ben Whishaw, Almeida Theatre
There was a Q&A after last Tuesday's performance of Bakkhai at the Almeida, freshly showered after their characters rather grubby ending in the play Bertie Carvel and Ben Whishaw were joined by three of the chorus - Elinor Lawless, Aruhan Galieva, Kaisa Hammarlund - and the session was chaired by assistant director Jessica Edwards. And these are some of the highlights (not quite verbatim, my note-taking isn't that fast and some of the questions I couldn't hear as there were no mic's so have guessed from the answers):
Q What was it like performing a play that is 2,500 years old?
BC - It's not really that different from performing a new play...except that you have to trust that it has some kind of integrity. The tricky thing is not to not mess with it but to mess with it in the right way. With an ancient play, there is a danger of being bullied into thinking that it's lasted 2,500 years because it's somehow perfect and that the mysteries it has are because you aren't clever enough to understand them. But it is like a modern play in that respect, you have to trust that it is like archaeology, peel it back layer by layer and it gives up its mysteries and you might discover something no one has discovered before.
Q. How was the chorus devised?
Described as a difficult and complicated process. Director James McDonald had pebbles with their initials on and assigned them lines. They would then record their spoken lines and then the rest of the chorus would have to learn it verbatim so that each line had ownership. The myriad of accents and style, it was hoped, would make it sound more interesting less "monotonous and boring". The timing came with experience and gelling as a group, they just got to know each other's styles and characteristics but it took a long time.
BC Some assume that the actor's act, the directors direct and the designer's design but everyone's jobs crossover, its a chorus of expertise, a collaboration and that is what I love about theatre. You collect all the ideas and chuck out the bad ones. A lot of the decisions are collective decisions led by the head of that particular department. It means you have ownership over your character because you have ideas about the costume and where to stand.
Q. What about the timing between scenes and sung passages - play has a lot of costume changes as the principal actors play several characters.
JE Wanted the action to jump cut, wanted it to move very quickly to create tension. "And the boys were just brilliant at doing their quick changes." The play was written to be performed by three people so the chorus sequences would have been written to accommodate the costume changes.
BW Jokingly commented "Didn't they just wear masks?" miming taking one mask off and putting on another.
Q About feminism in the play.
BC It's what interested me because I think Greek plays ask questions but they don't deliver answers, they aren't didactic, they aren't moral. There is clearly an interest in gender you get to play a man, a man pretending to be a woman and a woman although still a man and here's an actor (points to Ben) who plays a God who is a hermaphrodite who dresses as a woman but is a man. The female chorus is potent, active, antagonistic all adjectives you normally associate with men.
BW It opens a landscape where everything and its opposite exists. Such a different world, we like things clear cut now.
Q About the set design and its significance
JE Represents three aspects: urban landscape (concrete looking slab stage), natural world (mounds of mud) and the surgical looking light is a cold clinical light - the organised world examining the natural world of Dionysus. It also moves during the performance to represent the passing of time.
BC Contours of the mounds represent the skyline view from a theatre in Athens. (Poly said afterwards that she couldn't verify this.)
Q About the rehearsal process
BC It more different every night than any other show I have done, nothing is fixed, it is quite chaotic in a sense. It feels very fluid...Often in rehearsals, if we were struggling with an exchange or a line we'd go back to the literal translation and ask if this was a flight Anne's (Carson, who wrote the version they use) fantasy or has she done something here but often it was no. The translation might have a word that gave slightly different inflection or a slightly different reading of the line.
Q Who are you rooting for in the play
JE It's not black and white like that.
BC Kind of no play if there are a hero and villain. It's like a boxing match and even if it is obvious one person is going to win it is gratifying to watch someone lose and lose well and that sort of what we want this to feel like. Obviously, the god comes out at the beginning and tells you what is going to happen 'I am a god and I'm going to teach this guy a lesson' and you watch that play out. What is interesting about that is if you feel like it is still a struggle rather than a foregone conclusion.
BW The perception of gods were very different. They were just sitting up on Mount Olympus fucking with human beings. They got jealous, felt lust for human beings and sort of represent the ugly, cruel aspects of life. The plays are still so shocking.
Q About the similarities between Ben and Bertie's characters.
BC Made a joke about how he and Ben "were both trained at the RADA" saying it in luvvie voice which got a big laugh.
BW They are two absolutist characters. They both come on and say, 'there is no question here, you follow me or I fuck you up' or 'you obey my orders or I stone you to death'. It is two opposite perspectives crashing into each other. It is what happens in the world all the time. You get people who have an idea that is true and they pursue it and if you don't agree then 'fuck you'. This is the problem of the world. It's not like the god comes on and says 'hey you can choose me if you want', that there's some flexibility.
JE They are very similar but different sides to the same coin. Dionysus wins because he's a god and man will never beat a god.
Some random things:
* Bertie said that the chorus cracked the concrete stage with their staffs during technical rehearsal
* Ben uses a hair clip to keep his wet fringe out of his eyes and has nicely manicured nails
* Bertie likes metaphors, a lot.
* Ben has a potty mouth - when he did speak, which wasn't very much but that's not unusual.