Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • WOMEN OF TROY • NT Lyttelton Theatre • 2007

500px-National_Theatre,_London

National Theatre [Wikipedia]

Director Katie Mitchell‘s Women of Troy is a hard evening’s worth of theatre, a precise, cerebral exploration of the pain that war brings. It is Greek tragedy without lyricism, grandeur, or any hope of catharsis, as it sweeps interval-less towards a curtain call ringing with explosions. This production does not wish to touch the heart, nor offer us a universal experience. It is after our heads, trapping us in a space where the savagery of war will never end, where beyond pain there is only more pain.

In a set like a badly lit underground car park (set design by Bunny Christie), a group of women in evening dresses and vertiginous heels shiver with cold, their silk-clad bodies restless, flickering with fear. Troy has fallen to the Greeks, King Priam has been slaughtered along with every man and boy of Troy and these, their wives and mothers, shell-shocked with what they have already witnessed, are caged in this non-place of unknown transit. This is a purgatory leading only to hell.

Euripides wrote Women of Troy in 415 BC but, interestingly, was even then looking back to the mythical work of the writer known as Homer, using the power of the myth of Helen and the downfall of Troy to comment on the atrocities his own age had seen. This version of Euripides’ play, by the poet Don Taylor, eschews the myth and comments only upon atrocity. He does this in several ways. Firstly he employs a robust, plain-speaking language, language that cannot be sung in chorus nor keened to the Fates, that has none of the elasticity of poetry. Here is Priam’s widow, Queen Hecuba (Kate Duchêne): “What I have suffered … is more than enough to make anyone fall down and never get up again.” It takes a performance as rigorously honest as Duchêne’s to get away with that line.

Most strikingly, Taylor and his director emphasize how specific, in both class and social behaviour, these women are. They are not Everywoman, suffering through the centuries; we don’t see the women of Darfur or the mothers of Beslan in them. These are youngish, upper class women dragged from a party, welded to their clutch bags and powder puffs, launching into formation tea dances at moments of stress. They are the women of Tenko, that old Japanese prisoner-of-war TV series and they are not programmed to wail to the heavens or to crouch in agony. Their fear is palpable yet they hold us at arms length.

The decision to cauterise the text and to lose the resonance of Greek myth is a brave one, perhaps foolhardy. The text is further weakened by poor sound; the low-hanging mezzanine floor that is suspended over the stage soaks up the vocals. One performance in particular – that of Sinéad Matthews as Cassandra – is deeply damaged by a lot of frantic running about beneath the concrete ceiling. I know nobody listened to Cassandra, but I don’t think it was because they couldn’t hear her.

However, what this production lacks in vocal delivery, it makes up for with fabulous, stirring music and sound effects and intriguing imagery. Music Director Simon Allen and Sound Designer Gareth Fry have created a soundtrack to suffer by, a flaring cacophony of crashing steel doors, of foghorns and ominous slidings and shiftings. From the scratching hum of a million locusts to the massive explosion at the end that seemed to rock the theatre and give us all tinnitus, it was epic, unbounded, mythic.

The imagery was sometimes unclear but never uninteresting, giving depth to the flat delivery of these women. Contrast the bizarrely pragmatic tone of Hecuba pointing out her dead baby grandson’s wounds, with the ghostly image of his absent mother, Andromache (a youthful, physically fluid Anastasia Hille), pregnant with this very baby and walking backwards across the stage while a half-heard conversation insinuates itself into the auditorium – we are with the baby in the womb, listening to his mother crooning. Mitchell keeps such a tight grip on her work; she lets us feel so rarely, that we grasp at moments like this.

Wastepaper baskets that burst into flame and sinuous ropes of sand falling from the ceiling all hint at a drama beyond the suffering of this one group of women, at the fall of an entire city, the collapse of a civilisation, but only obliquely, as if the women themselves just don’t have the words.

This production puts its audience into a cold, painful place but it fails to touch us. Why is this? Because the director does not want it to. She wants us to understand something of the effects of war and the pain it brings and, like Bertolt Brecht before her, she mistrusts the heart. She believes that feeling will cloud our judgment. I don’t agree, but no matter – she has produced an experience that is both thoughtful and intelligent.

Claire Ingrams © 2007

Originally published on R&V on 03-12-07

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