Everything starts out so promisingly. The colorful Globe stage is draped completely in white. A white orb looming over the stage and Neil Armstrong and his wife argue about whether man should walk on the moon. They talk about man's limitations and aspirations and Neil has got a proper space suit and everything. It's beautifully surreal in its simplicity. When he's finally up there Neil finds out that there is already a man/woman on the moon and a long, sustained "What just happened?" moment later the 2001: Space Odyssey look has given way to a colourful, glittering Disco, complete with dancers in golden leotards. The Jack Sparrow look-a-like ladyboy herald (Jonathan Chambers) will act as an MC and does his best to guide the audience through the somewhat patchy story.
Dionysus, son of Zeus, and his tribe of nymphish worshippers enter the city of Thebes, and with him comes a wave of debauchery that Pentheus, the ruler of Thebes, cannot tolerate. No music or dance is to be permitted and certainly no worshipping and crossdressing gender-bending self-fulfilment. Dionysus plans to take revenge on Pentheus who, he feels, denies him his rightful god status. There are lots of spells, disguises, and people getting turned into snakes – it all sounds like a pretty straightforward Greek tragedy to me. In Ché Walker's and Arthur Darvill's hands, however, the tragedy turns into a hot, glittery mess, and that is not always as exciting as it sounds. If unfamiliar with Euripides' play, you might get a bit a lost as Dionysus prances around the stage like the Willy Wonka of wine and rhythmically trash-talks the militant Pentheus. Tommy Coleman gives a strong performance full of charisma as Dionysus, the smooth, ensnaring half-god.
The traditional myth is intercut with at least four more modern plays-in-a-play that illustrate how Bacchus' spirit still impacts us today. In some way or another these stories are concerned with the different ways in which humans go to extremes or to which extended excellence impacts human relationships. A particularly well-exercised vignette, however, deals with a different side of obsessive behaviours, which has Globe regular Phil Cumbus and Harry Hepple pining away as hopeless heroin addicts.
Even though actor, drag queen and activist Bette Bourne gets to go down a somewhat unneccesarily sweary route in his portrayal of Teiresias, generally the writers' joyous handle on language is fresh and entertaining. When the play time travels to a dressing room in 1959 in which Billie Holiday and Lester Young discuss their shared understanding of the universal world pain, we see the potential and problem of The Lightning Child wrapped into one. These two jazz idols and their harrowing demise stand in for one of the main motives of the piece: artistic excellence and the experience of pain are two sides of the same coin. Alas, the way this is wedged into the play does not create a poignant coda to the main story, but a confusing digression that loses most of the audience along the way. And sadly, the attempt to connect the importance of gender transgression in a meaningful way to the other parts of the play feels slightly awkward and forced.
So, structurally a bit of Aristotelian moderation would not have gone amiss in this three hour ride. When one of the characters says that "mortals need to accept their own limits", we wish that the creators had embraced the limits a bit more to allow the Dionysian spirit to shine through clearly. Violence and ecstasy spike to unexpected heights in this celebration of all the contradictions of life. As quirky and unconventional adaptations go, this one is an absurd and flawed monster of a play that constantly swings between clever entertainment and self-indulgence.