Euripides’ Women of Troy is a real shocker. Written by a Greek playwright for a Greek audience, it shows the utter barbarity perpetrated by Greeks on the defeated population (that is the women as most of the men were dead) as the towers of Ilium burned. It’s difficult to imagine the impact that must have had on 5th Century BC Athens.
Katie Mitchell’s modern-dress production, set in a grim industrial dockside lock-up (anyone who has island-hopped and spent some time on Greek ferries will experience dj vu) evokes the unimaginable horrors endured by a once cultured tribe of women, desperately grasping onto the trappings of civilisation.
All we see of the glorious Greeks is a couple of weedy bureaucrats parcelling out the obscene justice imposed by a triumphant invading army. Thankfully we are spared any overt parallels with recent world events but the degradation of both victory and defeat in war is plain to see and the leap to current relevancy easy to make.
Mitchell uses, or over-uses, her trademark techniques of slow-motion sequences and erratic ballroom dance routines. She also unaccountably puts barriers in the way of the audience, principally one of inaudibility. Sinead Matthews’ slight Cassandra is played full pelt with hardly a word intelligible and she’s not the only one who appears to have no reserves to call upon.
As a twitchy Andromache, Anastasia Hille has the disadvantage of having to play her entire part upstage and, not seeing her face, we find it very difficult to sympathise with her plight, appalling though it is. Susie Trayling’s understandably neurotic Helen begins her great speech of defence well but is so pinioned down and pulled around that we lose it halfway through and, as her estranged husband, Menelaus, Stephen Kennedy’s Belfast accent is so broad, we struggle to hear him too.
An ever-present ominous rumble, like a low-toned tinnitus, adds atmosphere but also furthers the audibility problem while three large desks set downstage throughout contribute a visual barricade for at least some of the audience.
There is clarity and solidity to Kate Duchne’s youthful matriarch, Hecuba, a magnet for the chorus of frightened chicks, although this is a production that will be remembered for its visual strength rather than any of the performances. A shadowy and jerky Helen, kept apart from the other women in an upstairs suite of seedy office rooms for the first half of the play, is a particularly effective image. At the end, there’s an extremely violent event of such ferocity it leaves you wondering how it was achieved.
It’s not clear what “from a version by Don Taylor” means, presumably that liberties have been taken with the late writer’s words but, from what we heard of it, this was a fluent and mellifluous text, the stark beauty of the poetry clashing with the dispiriting subject matter.
But, for all the horrors portrayed children torn from their mothers’ arms, the dead and broken body of the baby Astyanax, the fear of a wife brought face to face with the avenging husband she left for another man and the brutal subjugation of a group of women who are doled out to the enemy as spoils of war this production doesn’t hit home on an emotional level and I found myself admiring the visuals and thinking it was all horrific rather than feeling it.