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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Mad women, divine punishment, and “Dionysus”

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By Corrie Tan

(1,700 words, eight-minute read)

This review contains spoilers and/or plot points for The Bacchae, a 2,500-year-old ancient Greek tragedy; Beware of Pity, a 1939 German novel adapted for the stage by the Schaubühne Berlin and Complicité; as well as the final season of the fantasy television epic Game of Thrones, which concluded last month after an eight-year run.

 

All these mad women! Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, her face quivering with rage astride her dragon, till this point a folk heroine overthrowing slavers and tyrants, decides she’ll reduce a city to ash. Edith von Kekesfalva, a delicate young woman with a physical disability, craves the affections of a young soldier visiting her opulent home – then sinks her crazed claws into him. Agave, the queen mother of King Pentheus, home after days of bacchic revelry, holds her own son’s head aloft, believing it to be a mountain lion she’s killed with her bare hands. She calls out for her son – where is he? – to marvel at this bloody trophy she’s brought home, not realising she’s the one who’s torn him from limb to limb.

From Medea to Ophelia to Miss Havisham to Alex Forrest to Carrie Mathison to our entire canon of vengeful hantu and huli jing – we seem to revel in depictions of feminine hysteria, the spectacle of a woman unravelling. Femininity is at the very core, the very womb of hysteria; “hysteria” is derived from the Greek root hystera, meaning “uterus”. Embedded in our etymology is the seed of madness in every woman. We’re trapped in the stereotypes of the language we use, always running the risk of turning monstrous from rage and grief. And in Euripides’ The Bacchae, you don’t need to be a woman to be resented for your femininity and all your potential unruliness, your ungovernable-ness. Queerness is treated with a mix of terror, hatred and revulsion by those in political power. “That effeminate stranger,” King Pentheus says of Dionysus, a shudder of disgust running through his voice as he describes the god’s long, curly hair.

Euripides’ The Bacchae trembles with the untameable animal within. Which is perhaps why Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, with his emphasis on reclaiming the “animal energy” of the theatre as opposed to the “non-animal energy” of industrialisation and digitisation, is drawn to its jagged emotional landscape, its complicated relationship with feminine outrage and queer authority. But Suzuki displaces The Bacchae, that throng of women running wild in the mountains, from the title of this play, renaming it Dionysus instead, after the shapeshifting god who leads them. The irony being that Dionysus never appears incarnate in this production, but moves through the voices of the chorus, as well as a ghostly voiceover – a kind of spirit possession of the stage. This streamlined adaptation of one of the most iconic Greek tragedies was one of the opening performances of this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), and while Dionysus has been in repertoire with the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) since the 1990s, this production introduces a more recent collaboration between SCOT and influential Indonesian production company Bumi Purnati Indonesia.

The Bacchae tracks the gruesome downfall of King Pentheus (Tian Chong), the grandson of Cadmus (Jamaluddin Latif) and son of Agave (Naito Chieko). Suzuki’s version trims out several characters (including the blind seer Tiresias) to focus on the chorus and the three key figures of the royal family and their relationship with the god of wine and theatre. Dionysus, son of the god Zeus and the mortal Semele, is seeking veneration in the city of Thebes. His lineage is the subject of some controversy, and several of his mother’s sisters, Agave included, have disputed his paternity – although this connection feels less clear in the current adaptation. Dionysus may “appear as a man”, but this line suggests there’s the possibility of him appearing as other genders, moving fluidly between them. Pentheus, Dionysus’ cousin and an impetuous king, is disgusted by the chaos and eroticism of Dionysus’ growing cult of women, the Maenads, as well as the gender-bending sexuality of their god-leader. Pentheus wants to get rid of them, but he’s also inexplicably drawn to them, and decides he’ll follow a disguised Dionysus to spy on their wild acts. Performer Tian Chong plays this as a creepy sexual voyeur, reaching out his hand to grasp at a supple breast with a kind of demented half-giggle. The Maenads surround him and tear him to pieces, and his mother Agave bears his head home only to be scapegoated for his death when she comes to her senses. She’s exiled from Thebes, and without a hystera from which a male heir can be born, the royal family collapses.

Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited

 

It’s a familiar story in Greek tragedy: defy the god(s) and end up destroyed. The gods have no patience for hubris. Japan in the 1990s, the first time this Dionysus was staged, saw the rise of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and the tragic, horrific consequences of its deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway; many of the perpetrators were executed just last year, offering up an eerie resonance with Suzuki’s critique of a blind devotion to religion. But there’s another familiar story here, and it’s also a story told by the Schaubühne Berlin and Complicité’s interpretation Beware of Pity (also staged at the opening of SIFA), and the “Mad Queen” Daenerys of Game of Thrones. It’s the reductive notion that women are madonnas or whores (“the chaste women will not be compelled!” goes a line from Dionysus), that they’re angelic or crazed — and that they’re aligned mystically with the rhythms of the earth and the moon and “mother nature”. On the one hand we have the hystera-uterus, on the other we have metra, the ancient Greek term for womb that comes from meter, “mother”. The identity of the mother is overlaid with her biological, reproductive function. Here we have Agave, the maternal figure standing in as a symbol of the natural world – and it felt like an additional cautionary tale, that by extension we ought to beware the woman scorned.

It’s a complicated commentary in the current context that I’m not sure Suzuki was considering when he decided to bring this production back into the repertoire. Set against the current momentum of #MeToo there is – unfortunately – the temptation to associate cancel culture and call-out culture with outraged, hysterical women clamouring to militantly overthrow patriarchal systems. I’m all for a reclamation of the monstrous feminine – there’s something deeply thrilling about laying waste to oppressive structures, of wearing “nasty woman” like a badge of honour. My only worry is that we end up thwarted by the very same system we seek to reform, the way Agave is scapegoated for murdering her son who scorned a god, punished heavily for it, and cancelled out from all she knows and holds dear.

For all its suggestions of frenzy and malleability and utter abandon, the grounded precision of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training means that this is a Dionysus marked by a taut restraint. The multilingual, intercultural ensemble seems to move together in a single breath. I’m thinking about the influence of Noh performance on the temporal elasticity of a single movement, where every single step is significant. I remember witnessing Japanese Noh master Kanji Shimizu explaining this to a student: “You walk three metres on stage, but it feels like you are travelling from Tokyo to Nara. If you walk one round on the stage, you are travelling from Tokyo to Singapore. If a character travels onto the stage from off stage, over the bridge that connects the stage to the rest of the world, it is like travelling 3,000 years.” Every scene on Dionysus’ minimalist stage feels like a beautiful freezeframe, like the sprawling bas-reliefs of the Prambanan Temple in Yogyakarta, where this production was staged in September last year – or those at Angkor Wat, where the most tumultuous of battles from the Ramayana and Mahabharata are rendered into rock. Think of the demon king Ravana, his legion of heads and arms unfurling around him as he shakes Mount Kailash, a carving incredibly suggestive of movement but completely still at the same time. It’s an odd juxtaposition to feel in Dionysus, all the madness seething and roiling beneath this veil of calm. It also feels strangely contained in the dark confines of the Victoria Theatre proscenium stage, with interludes of strafing electronic music and steely silence.

Dionysus is a complicated work for complicated times; I’m still grappling with its twin questions of religiosity and womanhood. Suzuki’s impulse is to return to “pre-modern theatre” in order to find the tribal and the ritualistic in contemporary performance, where the performer is a kind of shamanistic conduit between the audience and the beyond, possibly the divine. The divine didn’t speak to me in this performance, but its intermediaries certainly did. Who speaks for the gods – or the causes we commit ourselves to? Who tries to regulate the bodies of women – and how is it that we still end up taking the blame? How can we embrace madness – but also manage essentialising acts? I think of the silent women penetrating the stage, swathes of red-and-white cloth trailing behind them, a faint shimmer of powder in the air, haunting everything that takes place in the Greek polis, the public and political forum that was largely the domain of men. As much as Dionysus is about that blind mist of rage that descends on Agave and her fellow women and then eventually lifts to reveal the terrible act she’s committed, it’s also about the blindness of men in power to how they make the female body the site of male punishment. I’ve been thinking about the abortion debate raging in the United States following bans in several states, where the female body is the turf for an almost irreconcilable conflict; I’ve been thinking about how single mothers in Singapore (including women of all sexualities who adopt their biological children) still don’t have access to housing and parental benefits, the silent punishment of omission for ‘illegitimacy’. 2,500 years later, the archetype of the hystera continues to betray us…


Dionysus by Suzuki Company of Toga and Bumi Purnati Indonesia ran from 17–18 May 2019 at the Victoria Theatre as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Corrie Tan is the Associate Editor and Resident Critic of ArtsEquator.

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