It was the most sympathetic dramatic depiction of a transsexual transition I have ever seen. It was also generalised: this is everyone’s experience, unless they are cursed to suffer immaturity and the loss of all potential. It was completely unexpected for me: I knew the play Bakkhai would be the God Dionysus coming upon a man, and changing him utterly, but until I saw it, I did not know how. I was consumed by it.
Bakkhai is at the Almeida theatre until 19 September: get a ticket, it is worth a trip to London. The image of Ben Whishaw and the experience of the Oresteia there was enough to sell it to me. The animal grace and danger in the photograph is multiplied on stage. He also wears a dress, of thin animal skins, and dances as a woman in long hair. As The Bible says, “male and female God created them”- we are all a bit of both.
I felt, early on, there would be little drama. The God is a God- or daemon, there is no precise English equivalent- who will clearly crush the man. Pentheus, played by Bertie Carvel, comes on arrogant in his power as King of Thebes. He is the rational man, seeking Order in the city, and despising the worshippers as merely dirty and silly or mad. Because of his felt need to preserve order, he feels able to exert any violence against Dionysus or the worshippers, yet none of it has any effect. He believes he is tying Bakkus with rope, but instead is tying a bull. Such energy he devotes to tying it! Pentheus thinks our civilisation is all that has value, and our atavistic drives, emotions and heart-leadings are as nothing in comparison: worth nothing, having no power. He does not see.
Dionysus suggests he go to spy on the Bakkhai. But they are women: they will tear a spy to pieces; so he must disguise himself as a woman! Pentheus is at first revolted, but then agrees.
He appears in an ill-fitting black skirt suit with gauche frills and a narrow gold chain belt. That was the most awful moment for me. I have worn that suit. You have worn it too, not knowing better, not knowing what fits or suits- perhaps your dress sense is still lacking. You, cis people, have worn it: trying something new for the first time, you just get it horribly wrong.
He is uncomfortable, but joins the dance: at first self-conscious but soon authentically feeling.
If you read the book, you would see that his mother Agave, a mad worshipper who does not recognise him, kills him. She tears him to pieces, and must be told that the head she flaunts is that of her son. She goes into exile from safe, civilised Thebes. However in this play Agave is also portrayed by Bertie Carvel. Now, s/he is relaxed, unaffected, authentic, a woman accepted as such by other women. Indeed, perhaps I am the mother of my old male act, which I have torn apart and consumed.
The Bakkhai are the chorus, ten women who sing close harmony. There is a great deal of lush beauty in the production.
I do not normally play the fan-girl, but was so bowled over I wanted to get the script, and get Ben to sign it. Out came Bertie, whom I had not till then recognised as Jonathan Strange: well, he is an actor, able to portray several characters. He told me that the Greeks originally would have had only three actors, plus the chorus: so their doubling would be the same as the modern production. Euripides portrayed a sex change. He is delighted that the Greeks would think of it that way, and I am so moved.
I am pretty sure that woman is trans, so I go to speak to her.
-I think we may share some experiences.
-Well, we’re both tall.
-Er, are you trans?
-Yes. Are you trans?
I acknowledge I am.
We talk a bit. I feel mocked by this conversation, disrespected: I want to share my enthusiasm, she rebuffs me. Well, you do not normally just talk to strangers in the theatre, but it feels transphobic to me: why would we not want to associate with each other, were we not transphobic?
There is a longer queue for Ben.
I am touched by that God, I say.
He is a good God to be touched by, he says.