BWW Review: THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 5 October
The ability of plays from over two millennia ago to seem relevant to the contemporary world, speaking across the centuries of neverending truisms of the human experience, never ceases to amaze. Indeed, The Suppliant Women is the second-oldest surviving play in existence, and this new production clearly demonstrates its ongoing relevance with some shockingly contemporary analogues.
This is the opening play of David Greig's first season as artistic director at the Lyceum, and is adapted by Greig himself from the original by Aeschylus. Coming straight after the Lyceum's hosting of Dundee Rep's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil, Greig's season certainly is shaping up to be full of "politics, music, poetry, participation", as he mentions in his programme foreword.
Participation in the case of The Suppliant Women is not limited merely to the story's themes, as the production - helmed by Ramin Gray - aims to offer its audience a sense of theatre as experienced by the Ancient Greeks. An amateur chorus perform the work, musical accompaniment is presented using classical instruments such as the aulos, and local political officials are invited to perform libations in honour of Dionysus and those who funded the play (doubling up as a neat reminder of the difficulties of funding theatre in contemporary Britain). Theatre is probably the most communal of all the arts, so this encouragement to see it as having a crucial role in civic life is an engaging and informative treat.
Once the gods have been suitably honoured, we proceed to the play itself. Set in a temple outside the city of Argos, a group of women have fled across the sea from the prospect of forced marriages to Egyptian men and seek asylum in the city. The parallels are obvious: Syria is mentioned within the first few lines, the women discuss the inevitable prejudices foreigners face in a new land and there are further knowing nods to contemporary politics throughout.
They plead their case to the city's king (Oscar Batterham), who chooses to open the issue up to a democratic vote of the citizens of Argos, something very notable in a play written a number of years before democracy existed outside of the stage. One has to wonder if such a choice would be effective if there was an Ancient Greek equivalent of the Daily Mail, but on this occasion, the citizens of Argos choose to face the prospect of war by taking in the refugees.
A large chorus made up of community volunteers, led by professional Gemma May Rees, create the eponymous women. Onstage throughout the entire hour and a half long performance, the diverse group of young Edinburgh women are impeccably drilled as they use movement, choral speech and singing to bring their stories to life. Some of the costumes seemed more "weekend in Magaluf" than refugees fleeing sexual violence, but the vocal rendition of musical director and composer John Browne's score was both haunting and energising.
The set is simple but effective, with a grey slab-style floor suggesting the temple and the rest of the space left open, exposing the backstage areas behind, with the Lyceum's metal struts given an air reminiscent of Greek columns. Leaving this space open allowed a sense of the epic, with performers dwarfed by the scale of it in much the same way as they would have been in an amphitheatre. This effect is also aided by the contributions of lighting designer Charles Balfour, who created a number of beautiful effects, particularly in a section where the Egyptian men pursuing the title characters arrive at the temple and try to force them back into the life they have fled.
Unfortunately, the final section following this was rather muddled. Having voted unanimously to welcome the Suppliant Women, the citizens of Argos encourage them into marriage in the name of Aphrodite. It seemed unclear whether Greig was aiming for discussion of cultural assimilation, of the constant presence of the oppression of women, or whether it was a sign of The Suppliant Women's place as the first installment of a trilogy, the latter two parts of which are now lost, but it did seem to take the piece off-track as it moved towards its conclusion.
Despite losing its way a little towards the end, The Suppliant Women proves a thoroughly engaging foray into the world of Greek theatre. Merging the classical with the fiercely up-to-date, and engaging in its form as well as its content, this is a strong start to Greig's tenure at the helm of the Lyceum.
The Suppliant Women runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until October 15th, followed by touring dates in Belfast and Newcastle.
Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey