Paul Wignall's Bursting the Grape
Eden Theatre Company, UK
The Eden Project, Cornwal, UK
October 24 - November 1st, 2003
The Eden Project has proved to be an invaluable venue for arts events in Cornwall, but its full potential as a performance space had not truly been exploited until local director Dominic Knutton took an area within the Warm Temperate Biome, six actors from the Eden Theatre Company and a new text by writer Paul Wignall to create a dramatic masterpiece called Bursting the Grape.
Knutton is renowned for his community-based revivals of the medieval Cornish Ordinalia plays at St Just in Penwith. This new work, however, described as "a ritual for Eden," was revival of a different flavour, returning to the roots of Western drama with a celebration of the god Dionysos. The publicity materials clearly warned that the show was for "adults only," containing "strong language and mild sexual content." The choice for performance dates was a little ironic as the production was advertised as part of the Eden Project's autumn half-term entertainment, but a much edited family version of the play was staged during the day to cater for a younger audience.
The play focused on Dionysos in relation to Ariadne and Theseus, avoiding the more commonly portrayed Pentheus plot, and introduced a direct link between the god in his bull form and the Minotaur. This exceedingly successful poetic conflation brought the human sub-plot of Theseus and Ariadne into direct relation with central events in the accounts of Dionysos' life: his discovery of wine; his death, sparagmos and rebirth, and his ultimate status as a universal and inspirational god of possibility. The text vividly evoked the model of an ancient Greek satyr play. Urgent, accessible and perfectly modern, it was nevertheless laden with intricately researched classical references, and the copious explanatory notes at the end of the script are a testament to the depth of Wignall's research into the material. In performance, the play was an earthy and spiritual production, making use of the sensual, organic surroundings of the Citrus Grove, and employing masks, bare flesh, dancing and text.
The actors provided a creative space for the audience's imagination, whilst the audience's complicity with the cast was relied upon to make a simple token, such as a long, red tape manipulated by members of the cast, into a hugely effective labyrinth for Theseus to enter. The production also boasted a hilarious, yet menacing, and erotic chorus – the most outstanding 'ancient' chorus that I have witnessed in modern production.
When Dominic Knutton approached the Eden Project with his proposal for Bursting the Grape, they were concerned about the content of the script, but by persuading them that this production was as much a risk as the whole Eden Project venture itself, he finally got the go-ahead. Securing this performance space was exceedingly important for the overall success of the production; it is difficult to imagine a more appropriate venue for a dramatic exploration of Dionysos.
As the audience entered the Warm Temperate Biome they were greeted by Silenus, the raucous, anarchic leader of the satyrs, who guided them to the Citrus Grove, following a thread, as used by Theseus later in the play, to get there. En route, the audience passed Tim Shaw's statue of Dionysos as a copper bull, surrounded by maenadsa permanent art installation commissioned by the Eden Project when it first openedbefore arriving at the Citrus Grove itself. There were only a few seats on one side of the circular performance space, so most of the audience stood on a high path that skirted the edge of the space. This meant that each member of the audience had a unique view of the performance, framed by a variety of exotic plants including, appropriately, clusters of real vines. Behind the audience was a tall cliff, which towards the end of the play was used as a platform from which Ariadne shone as a star. To one side of that was a small waterfall, the constant sound of which added to the sensual experience of the play, along with the fragrance of citrus fruits which came from the real orange and lemon trees dotted around. Dominic Knutton recounts that the greatest pleasure of performing there was that the biome sometimes seemed to disappear altogether, transporting the audience to an outdoor theatre in Ancient Greece:
Just for a split second you might have been transported 2000 years back in time and have seen what people have been doing since they made theatre: dancing about outside in masks, evoking the gods. (Knutton 2003)
That is certainly a sensation I experienced during the performance, though brought back to reality by a heavy shower of rain that battered the biome, in turn causing the air vents to open and close to regulate the temperature for the plants.
The structure of the play was a single Greek choric ode made up of a strophe and an antistrophe, each which in turn was split into internal pairings of strophe-antistrophe that balanced each other either side of the central stasimon. The play opens with a parados in which Silenus, the leader of the chorus, introduces Dionysos and the creation of wine. Then follows the first strophe, introduced by the Tamada, or toastmaster, narrating the story of Theseus and Ariadne as the former prepares to enter the labyrinth. Stichomythia is used to great effect directly prior to the couple's parting, both as Theseus enters the labyrinth and, later, as he abandons Ariadne on Naxos. This flows into the first antistrophe in which Theseus encounters and kills the Minotaur. Next, in the stasimon, the chorus enter to assist with the sparagmos of Dionysos, who then rises and unites with the Snake in a frenzied mating ritual. The second strophe then picks up the Theseus and Ariadne plot on Naxos, culminating in Ariadne's abandonment and lament in the second antistrophe. Finally the play ends with the kommos: a final choric dance and the consecration of Ariadne as a star.
While using these Greek dramatic structures, Bursting the Grape also refers specifically to the style of a Greek satyr play, which is worthy of note as few modern writers have chosen to emulate this genre of drama when producing their own works for live performance, the only other notable exception being Tony Harrison and his Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (Harrison 1991. See also Easterling 1997, p.38). Discovery is the typical theme of a satyr play, and in this instance the satyrs, together with the Snake, discover wine.
But satyr plays are also of particular relevance to Dionysos. A large part of the god's entourage, or thiasos, was made up of satyrs, the mischievous, sensual creatures, half-human and half-animal. These creatures also formed the chorus of the satyr plays performed at the close of each tragic trilogy in the annual festival in honour of Dionysos at Athens: the Great or City Dionysia. François Lissarrague has summarised the satyr play genre as: "take one myth, add satyrs, observe the result" (Easterling 1997, p.41), a formula that could equally well describe Wignall's approach in Bursting the Grape. While leaving Theseus, Ariadne and Dionysos to their heroic dignity, his chorus of wild satyrs shifts the whole piece into a different dimension.
The chorus in Bursting the Grape was of paramount importance to the play as a whole. Present throughout, they both provided a commentary on the actions of the protagonists, and helped to create settings for the various scenes, using their own physical presence with only minimal props. The chorus' assistance in the unravelling of Ariadne's clew, to lead Theseus into the labyrinth, for example, was one of the most imaginative and successful of scenes. The three actors who made up the chorus of satyrs, Tristan Hankins, Graham Naiken and Oliver Oakenshield, were bursting with life, real and fantastically accessible. Dominic Knutton employed the techniques of Jacques LeCoq, identifying a 'major', or leader, for movement and impulses who remains invisible to the audience and who can change throughout the performance. He also encouraged the actors to work daily on giving and receiving impulses.
Vocally, too, the chorus was strong. They varied between speaking simultaneously and bouncing sentences rapidly off each other, but always with a strong rhythm at the heart of everything they said or did, and sometimes accompanied with pulsating drum beats in the background. Their physicality was highly pronounced, as befits a chorus of satyrs: wearing skin-coloured body stockings, trimmed only with the occasional bit of fur, these grotesque, phallic creatures pranced and danced drunkenly about the stage (there was a particularly animated rendition of a Breton Pasepie at one ecstatic moment); guzzled down fresh body parts; and fondled their comical, erect, two-foot phalloi, in an almost Aristophanic celebration of food, drink and sex.
The chorus wore full-face masks, as did the other supernatural characters, Dionysos and the Snake, whilst the humans, Theseus and Ariadne, were performed unmasked. Knutton decided upon the use of masks before rehearsals started, because they "command a certain way of playing which is not naturalistic and lends an epic quality to the work." (Knutton 2003) The masks worn in performance were designed and made by Michael Chase of Glasshouse Masks, who takes traditional masks as his inspiration and then interprets them himself, so they are not exact historic replicas. Knutton says the satyr masks were among the most effective masks he has ever used in performance as they completely transformed the wearers into misbehaving, chaotic beings, while admitting that this was a double-edged sword, as they were occasionally difficult to control in rehearsal.
By far the most hilarious scene involving the chorus was the sparagmos of Dionysos. Having been killed by Theseus, Dionysos' body was dumped in a metal bathtub at the back of the stage area, and as the satyrs entered, "playful, anarchic, untamed" (Wignall 2003, p.17), they set about tearing the god to pieces. While ripping suggestive fruits and props out of the bathtub, they devoured his body parts and threw the revolting remains into the audience, to the accompaniment of uproarious stichomythia. At one point, two satyrs plucked a couple of plums out of the bathtub, squeezed them over a steak before casting them into the audience:
SATYR 1 Here's a fat ten-pound sirloin for this satyr to savour.
SATYR 2 And testicle sauce to bring out the flavour (Wignall 2003, p.18).
Despite following the traditional Greek myths surrounding the principal characters of Dionysos, Theseus and Ariadne, Bursting the Grape introduced several innovative twists to the relationships between the personae of the play. The conflation of the role of Dionysos with that of the Minotaur was without a doubt the most interesting of these diversions, as it involved Dionysos in Theseus and Ariadne's story long before the latter's abandonment on Naxos. Genealogically the Minotaur and Dionysos were identified as sharing the same father: Dionysos being the progeny of Zeus' affair with Semele, and the Minotaur being the result of Pasiphae's union with the White Bull, who, according to Ariadne's account in this production, was in fact Zeus in disguise. The representation of Dionysos as a bull (Pentheus sees him as such in Euripides' Bacchae) also lends itself rather neatly to this conflation of characters, and throughout the play Dionysos was referred to with such epithets as "black bull against an evening hedge" (Wignall 2003, p.34).
Another coupling of characters was that of the Snake, one of Dionysos' first followers having tasted his wine, with Ariadne. These were the only two female roles in the play,both performed by the slight, lithe actor, Wendy Taylor, and were both linked sexually to Dionysos. The Snake took part in an ecstatic union with the god after his rebirth at the central climax of the play, while Ariadne was accused by Theseus of being incestuously involved with the Minotaur before he himself won her heart – an ambiguous detail which, if true, makes Ariadne no stranger to Dionysos by the time he rescues her from Naxos and immortalises her as a constellation. Ariadne swears innocence, insisting that her mother is the only one to have mated with a beast:
THE BULL RODE HER. She put herself to it. She was mounted. She was coped, screwed. She was fucked by a fucking white bull. Is that clear enough for you? (Wignall 2003, p.24).
But all the while, Ariadne is dancing a feverish Crane Dance of Knossos, "forward, twist and turn to the sun," and the text at this point is littered with references to her as a snake:
When you wrapped your legs around me, that first time, and I saw your eyes, cold with wanting, and your tongue, flickering between your white little teeth (Wignall 2003, p.22).
As this scene was immediately preceded by the copulation of snake and bull, the question of Ariadne's chastity became one of the enigmatic problems left for the audience to decide for themselves.
The greatest presence in the play, however, was that of Dionysos. The roles of Theseus and Ariadne were very much included as mere foils to the great god of possibility, whose presence was felt even when he wasn't actually on the stage. Dionysos was played by Ben Dyson who, despite being of slighter build than would usually be associated with Dionysos, made his presence highly physical at all times, his torso never remaining still for a moment and his muscles rippling, petulant and restless. The vision of Dionysos presented in Bursting the Grape was that of a god who offers possibilities beyond the norm, a space where anything could happen. This notion of the alternative to respectable and controlled life is of course highly relevant to the theatre, as Silenus concludes at the end of the play:
Over here's the uncertain,
unlooked for, terrifying circle
where you cross
the limits of comfort,
respectability and control.
Where anything goes.
Over there, behind you, is what we know,
and that is where we must go, now, in the end. (Wignall 2003, p.34)
But Dionysos is not just about the theatre as an alternative, or metaphor, for life. For Dominic Knutton, Dionysos is present in real life at moments where the alternative starts to infiltrate our normal lives:
You know him when he's there: the moment when the polite dinner party tips over the edge because of too much wine; any town at 11.30 p.m. on a Friday night; animated conversation over a bottle of fine wine; languid sex involving bottles of champagne; football hooligans on the rampage; Greek island antics in the summer. They're all Dionysos. (Knutton 2003)
For some of the actors working on the production, the issues of the play started to become apparent in their lives as a result of tapping into the darker Dionysian energies. In rehearsal a good deal of time was spent trying to evoke Dionysos, and according to the director one could genuinely feel it when the god was present. At times his presence was a rather unpleasant experience, leading to the satyrs becoming abusive, out of control and dangerous in improvisation. But in performance it was the satyrs who saved the production from focusing too heavily on the darker aspects of the god, and the fundamental image of Dionysos did not turn out to be that of a destructive, chaotic lord of misrule but of a god who inspires devotion by offering acceptance, possibility and ritual:
Whatever creeps up out of darkness;
loops of ivy on a forest floor,
the snake of desire wrapping itself
around our spine:
black bull against an evening hedge:
this is Dionysos:
the terror of our unremembered origins,
the god of "as if" and "as when"
the god of unimagined
and unlooked for possibilities;
the god who offers
the terrifying gift of freedom;
the god of the generous loop
between me and you,
between here and there,
between desire and decision,
between yes and yes (Wignall 2003 p.34).
The performance ended each night in the most suitable way possible, with the ritualistic participation of drinking wine together. As the cast danced and the audience applauded, glasses of wine were passed round the audience, cast and production team, and the evening ended with everyone present in the biome uniting in celebration of Dionysos.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Stewart
The reviewer would like to thank Dominic Knutton, Paul Wignall and Fay at the Eden Project for their assistance in preparing this review.
Elizabeth Stewart graduated in English and Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick in 2002 and now lives in Cornwall. She has written, directed and acted in numerous plays. In 2000 she worked as Assistant Director on a devised piece called Dionysos at the Warwick Arts Centre.
Easterling, P.E. (1997) "A show for Dionysos" in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harrison, Tony (1991) The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus London: Faber and Faber.
Knutton, Dominic (2003) Unpublished Interview with Elizabeth Stewart, 23 November 2003.
Wignall, Paul (2003) Bursting the Grape, (unpublished).