Review: ‘The Trojan Women’

Euripides’ The Trojan Women has inspired many rewritings. Modern ones include Jean Paul Sartre’s, featuring existentialist themes alongside a critique of European imperialism, and more recent adaptations such as Charles L. Mee’s Trojan Women: A Love Story (1994), which uses original interviews with Holocaust and Hiroshima survivors, or David Stuttard’s Trojan Women (2001), set in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The list goes on. The reason why Euripides’ play has been so widely read and rewritten lies in how it is considered and constructed as an anti-war play, which makes it open to pacifist rewritings, and features female protagonists, which makes it suitable for authors adapting it from a feminist perspective.

Caroline Bird‘s 2012 adaptation, which premiered at the Gate Theatre, is one of the most recent takes on this play. However, this version modernises the original only in parts: the women are sitting in the mother-and-baby unit of a prison; there are guns, TV screens, smartphones, and themes include issues of gender and class. But there are also gods, tales of human sacrifices, and prophecies (the character of Cassandra, one of Hecuba’s daughters, can see into her own future, just as she had predicted the fall of Troy). Bird’s adaptation is interesting and original, but also left me wishing that she had gone all the way in her modernization.

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This week’s performance of the text at the BT Studio, directed by Lucy Hayes, did not reconcile that contradiction. Another aspect of this production that I found puzzling was the jarring tone of some scenes. For example, the gods Poseidon (Joseph Stephenson) and Athena (Niamh Simpson) appeared via a TV screen at the beginning and end of the play, observing human beings in a way reminiscent of Orwell’s Big Brother. Their comments on human behaviour were funny and cynical, but as some people in the audience reacted with mild laughter, I found myself wondering how this fit within the general atmosphere of the play — was this a tragedy, or a black comedy? Whether this uncertainty was a product of the script or of the production is hard to tell.  From a technical point of view, the fact that the screen at the back of the stage showed the production’s Mac laptop and the process of selecting and starting the video definitely did not help, especially because this happened right at the beginning of the play, where there is a strong sense of expectation. Given that the visibility of the technical apparatus did not seem to be intentionally included as part of the design, it would probably have helped if this had been done more subtly.

Nonetheless, the acting was strong and convincing. India Phillips showed a particular ability to shift between characters, as she played Bird’s three-part character of the young and innocent Cassandra, then the mature Andromache, and finally the provocative Helen. Georgie Murphy as Hecuba conveyed an astounding range of emotions: frustration, humiliation, pride, anger, and tenderness. Elizabeth Mobed played the chorus: a pregnant, working-class woman, whose exchanges with the other women highlighted the class divide between them. Mobed’s rendition never slipped into lyricism, but always stuck to the down-to-earth tone fitting to her part.

The play’s truly tragic moments were  heightened by the space of the BT Studio itself. The small, intimate room made me sympathise with the women’s condition as prisoners, and at the same time did not allow the audience to escape from the play’s more brutal and poignant moments, such as descriptions of rape, or Hecuba’s funeral rite for Andromache’s son Astyanax, killed by the Greeks to avoid the possibility that he might, one day, avenge Troy.

This was a decent production, despite some doubtful choices like the actresses being dressed in nightgowns, which made them look more like they were in a hospital rather than in a prison. The play also felt a bit too long: it did not pick up the pace until the very end, and it felt like it could have got there earlier. These flaws are partly due to the script itself, but I think that the production could have tried to interpret the text in such a way as to create a tighter and more compelling performance. While it is surely not an easy decision to distance oneself from the script, and make radical choices in this respect, the production would have benefited from taking issue with some of the incongruities presented by play’s partial modernization of Euripides’ original.

Francesca Beretta

The Trojan Women runs at the BT studio until Saturday 5 November. Tickets can be purchased here.

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