Published on December 5th, 2011 | by Vikesh Godhwani1
A Greek Leader’s Sexual Nightmare
Love, sex, war, betrayal, hunger for power and the division of social classes lie in the heart of The Bacchae by Eurepedes. Vikesh Godhwani and Elena Stilon chat with Philip Leone Ganado [Pentheus] and Marta Vella [Bacchae] a week after the successful run of the Greek tragedy to get their view on the relevance of it in modern society.
Greek theatre does not focus on gore and violence like Roman plays do but it’s all about human emotions since people have been, are and will always be emotional. In fact, “Euripides gives us a brutal insight into human suffering. Agave was distraught with the realisation of her son’s death. A mother’s attachment to her child is always the same, irrespective of time and place,” says Philip Leone Ganado who played Pentheus, [Prince of Thebes] in the critically acclaimed production. This raw emotion is present in most Greek plays, like Antigone and Elektra, which he speaks passionately about.
What Marta Vella, who plays one of the ‘Bakkhai’ [Bacchae], loves about Greek tragedies is the fact that they have managed to stand the test of time. She goes onto say that even though times change, the issues a population faces are always the same. “Yes, they are in a different era and most of the time in a different scenario but they’re still there.”
About playing Pentheus, Phillip Leone Ganado points out that the role was initially challenging due to the prince’s repressed nature, which is very uncharacteristic of a Greek hero. However, once he understood what his character was all about, the process flowed naturally.
Philip observed Maltese politicians’ mannerisms and their asexual attitude; them basically being the modern equivalent to Pentheus. “Sex is important,” he says “, and the play certainly celebrates sexual liberation in the modern Gaga sense, as opposed to the tragic fate of those who ignore their sexuality.” He criticises society in its intolerant ways, as it expects politicians to be infallible despite them actually having an inner pervert hidden behind their plastered smiles.
In fact, when Pentheus disguises himself as a Theban woman to spy on the Bacchic free rituals, director Toni Attard directed Leone Ganado: “imagine what Lawrence Gonzi or Austin Gatt would never do and do that” in order to portray a Pentheus freed from his inhibitions. A person such as the prime minister would never dream of giving an account of his sex life to society, as it would be considered to be scandolous or even outrages.
According to Leone Ganado, it is Pentheus, oddly enough, who can be seen to represent religion due to his rigidity, and not Dionysus, the God of wine and theatre who conversely believes in absolute freedom. However, Marta says that Religion isn’t actually present in The Bacchae. “It’s more fanaticism and obsession on something which can set you free, crush your boundaries and destroy your inhibitions. The Bacchants – the women who left their families and homes for Dionysus, lived repressed lives before they encountered this god who didn’t judge them and let them do exactly as they pleased.
Nowadays people don’t necessarily follow a religious movement; however in career choices, the arts, different relationships…people constantly crave for something other than the norm which lets them be a different person who they are unable to be in their usual lives.” In light of this, the main theme that Toni Attard chose to tackle wasn’t sex alone but breaking barriers; the barriers that keep society and the individual from moving forward. The theme of opression versus freedom is also cleverly revealed through the use of sounds as Pentheus often uses staccato sounds throughout the play reflecting his rigidity while Dionysus uses rhyming words with softer, freer sounds.
Leone Ganado suggests that the play is terribly misogynistic and brings attention to the fact that we might have not changed over 2000 years later. “The idea that women are loose and seductive is still very present in Maltese society despite it being part of a very old-fashioned mentality,” says Leone Ganado “, Female politicians often play down to their femininity, as if a woman wants to be taken seriously in parliament she must act like a man by adopting male characteristics such as aggression.”
Marta has a different perspective on the matter and thinks that women are very much respected in the play. “ Even though the misogynistic Pentheus calls the Bakkhai ‘sluts’ they are actually in control of their bodies without a care in the world of being judged. They own their bodies and live the moment. Women today would not be able to act as the Bakkhai did (thank god perhaps), they wouldn’t be able to live the day.”
“A play like The Bacchae survived thousands of years and is still being put up today for a reason,” explains Marta . “The battle between church and state is still prevalent, and so are the boundaries put on human sexuality by society….If what was written by Euripides didn’t relate to modern audience, The Bacchae would have been forgotten by now.”