I was stunned to read The Metro’s review of the Lightning Child, the new musical drama by Ché Walker and Arthur Darvill inspired by Euripides’ The Bacchae, described as “extravagantly awful”, “camp, trippy and a total mess.”
It’s trippy, camp to the eyeballs and yes, awfully extravagant, but it’s more filthy than messy. And that’s what’s so fun. Who wouldn’t be thrilled and delighted to hear drag queen and gay rights activist Bette Bourne (as the blind seer Tireseus) shouting “you daft cunt” across the heads of the crowd at the Globe Theatre?
We begin with the 1969 moon landing. Neil Armstrong descends from his spaceship to face Ladyboy Herald, a Jamaican queen with blue dreadlocks, sparkly flip-flops and a face-full of glitter. He’s the eternal disciple of the god of wine and ecstasy Dionysus. “Know your limits”, he tells Neil.
And so we meet the Lightning Child, Dionysus. In Euripides’ play, the young demi-god is angry that his mortal family have turned their back on him. His mother Semele, Zeus’ mistress, was killed by jealous Hera and disowned by her sisters. Dionysus has spent his adult life travelling the world and gathering a cult of female worshippers, the Bacchantes.
With Andre 3000’s looks, Hendrix’s swagger and a voice like chocolate fondue, the Lightning Child whips his Bacchantes into a frenzy in gold lamé, which is all rather good fun until its interrupted by oddly jarring and completely unrelated scenes of junkies on the brink of self-destruction, Billie Holiday making up with Lester Young in her dressing room, and a rather pointless and unrealistic rivalry between two posh flatmates. Caster Semenya, the South African runner makes an appearance, too, beautifully played by Moyo Akandé, who puts her 6ft stature to great advantage, towering above the ignorant doctor trying to force her to be gender tested. “I just want to run”, she says. Gender is irrelevant here.
So the play’s been panned across the board it would seem. “Like some demented gang-show in hell, it goes on and on.” I’m starting to feel like maybe I saw a different play. What’s been missed by so many lazy reviewers is the strength of Clifford Samuel’s performance as Pentheus, the repressed king of Thebes who bans the worship of Dionysus.
Samuel plays him as a man that we recognise. A young, misogynistic, religious zealot, who blames women for his barely-repressed urges. He plays him funny. We mock him for his narrow-mindedness and pure hatred. He’s a fool.
Women, to Pentheus (which means ‘hate’, by the way), are filthy – sluts whose only aim is to destroy men by dastardly acts like cooking. “I see through their lies!”, he says. He recounts how he took revenge on one lover for almost snaring him with a delicious home-cooked meal by holding her down and vomiting it back up on her face.
The Lightning Child, Dionysus, will have his revenge on the king that exiled him. Pentheus is in a sexual rage, torn between punishing his mother for joining the orgy, and becoming a voyeur to it, with a view to raping. It’s driving him insane. In the end, Pentheus ends up trussed in a tight sequinned dress, heels and glitter along with the rest of them, powerless to his own gender-bending curiosity.
Ultimately its over-the-top in a camp, pantoey sort of way, and less shocking than it thinks it is. In the end, even Ladyboy Herald walks away and you’re left wondering what the point was after all? “Work it out on the train home. It’s the only way”, he says. But it packs enough surprises up its sleeve for it all to be worth it. And damn, it was fun to get carried away with all the mayhem.