BWW Review: THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN ends the Hong Kong Arts Festival at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre with a glorious ritual
It is a rarity for the Hong Kong Arts Festival to have nearly all of its theatre programmes really stick to its annual theme. Ending the Festival is THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN, a production by Actors Touring Company and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.
Retelling the ancient Greek play by Aeschylus, which is the first part of his three Danaid plays (part two THE EGYPTIANS and part three THE DANAIDS do not survive), THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN, this new version by David Greig after the ancient Greek tragedian, is an actual and glorious ritual to make a testimony to the theatre, to the Festival, to the people and to the world we are living in.
It is quite a surprise to see a libation fully done before a Greek play starts in this contemporary era. Actor Mark Lockyer from the company introduces Ms Margaret Cheng from the Festival to make a speech on how THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN makes its way to the theatre, how the production is supported by the funding from the community in Hong Kong, as well as the volunteers in the community who sacrifice their own-time for rehearsals, starting from January. The reason why this has to be done is that in ancient Greece, a play cannot go on until respect has been paid to the ones who make it happen.
In the end, with the whole Company witnessing, Ms Cheng pours a bottle of red wine onto the stage to end the libation for worshipping Dionysus, the god of theatre and wine, hoping him to bless the production. Once the wine is poured, the lights on stage shut out one by one as if Dionysus has answered.
From Mark Fisher's review in The Guardian two years ago, the libation makes its message clear, 'We're all in this together.' Director Ramin Gray makes a concrete statement at the beginning, that THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN is a community theatre project by having the actual ritual element performed. It is to make a declaration to the well-dressed audience in the theatre that what they are going to see is not just a performance for them to appreciate or to be entertained as an outsider. It is a joint-support by the community, by us citizens in the theatre, to witness something that is close to us. This is not a performance to beg for applause, but a performance as a reward for our respect to the gods protecting the theatre.
Once this is established, what happens on stage is magical and riveting. Written in 2500 years ago, Aeschylus's play is still so close to our contemporary world. A group of female refugees, led by their father Danaus, flee from Egypt to Argos for asylum. There is no beating around the bush. This play is so on-point to the situation of what is happening in Syria (which this country is also printed in the play when Aeschylus writes it). As the play unfolds, the audience witnesses the situation these suppliant women need to go through as well as how Pelasgos, King of Argos, makes his decision on whether to let the refugees entering the city.
If this play is done in a straight way with speeches, it will be just another retelling of a Greek classic that rings a bell to the nowadays world. It is refreshing to see THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN be done so faithfully to its original form instead. Song and dance is the most important element that branches the whole 90-minute play, which is also a sensible approach on a Greek play as it was supposed to be performed with a chorus. On top of that, John Browne's music starts THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN like a musical that pulls the audience into the play.
The play starts with the whole female chorus of the suppliants, led by the exceptionally brilliant chorus leader Gemma May with immense technique, pleading to claim asylum through singing and dancing. It is a long choral music that shouts harmony, with Greig's libretto capturing the poetics of the ritual, merging with Browne's layered composition that is, according to his own words which is absolutely right, 'religious'.
Sasha Milavic Davies's choreography also channels the sense of folklore with the mixture of contemporary movements, which gives energy to the chorus as well as to give the audience a sensation of harmonic formations without being too dictated. When the suppliant women give their second ode to Zeus, music, dance, and staging (bringing in bowls of leaves or dirt to form the image of a cow on stage with those raw materials) become one full picture of a ceremony. When the women dance vibrantly in the imitated-Greek-theatre minimalistic set, designed by Lizzie Clachan, it brings in the illusion that the land is under their feet as the dust gushes up around them. When the Egyptians attack the suppliant women at night, the theatre slowly turns into pitch black, only fire is burning brightly in the middle of the night.
These theatrical designs give the chilling effect that, once again, remind the audience what kind of a place the theatre is. THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN is something seems artificial, but actually really close to us, as spirits are watching us while it is performed. It keeps telling us the audience that it is an event which is not an act but a real worship to the gods, no matter it is Zeus or Io in the play, Dionysus in the theatre, or the ghosts in the wings, and they are responding, actively.
It proves that the theatre is a sacred place.
You can see that I have used the word 'harmony' a lot in above. It is because I firmly believe that this is the essence of what THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN want us to feel about it. With the support of the libretto, music and choreography, the main female chorus, featuring singers in Cantoría Hong Kong, eventually becomes the highlight of the night. I do have to admit that, as all of these members in the chorus are not professionally trained actors, one can see their amateur-skills in their performances. However, it is this clever structure of presenting THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN as a respect to the theatre, the chorus suddenly becomes not just a group of actors but a group of people, real people who have a story to share with their adequate skills. Most importantly, it is highly influential with witnessed passion and energy through their voices and bodies. It is a performance that one knows it is not professionally done, but one enjoys the fact that it is professionally led with taste.
Gray says that he wants THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN to be as close to what Aeschylus had meant to make it. I think this production does hit the mark on being neutral to the topic it conveys. With the refugee crisis and terrorism being the heated topic over the last three years, theatre artists do have their own political views, and artists are usually viewed as being pro-liberal. There might be a tendency to view THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN as a theatre piece that speaks for refugees and women's rights, especially that last scene. The suppliant women are finally received by the citizens of Argos. However, the women are persuaded by the citizens to get married to the men in the city, as it is a respect to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The women refuse, as they flee from Egypt with the reason of avoiding forced marriages. They are not going to go to another city and be forced to marry again. They enter the city with full confidence, assuring their rights of being virgins.
However, even though I was quite unsatisfied with the last scene of Grieg's alternation of his poetic tone into propagandish, as well as Browne's music that does not really fit with the musicality of Grieg's verses, I happen to ask myself if this is intentional, that it purposefully gives me an unsettling feeling at the end to question whether these women are a potential danger to the city.
We have followed these women all the way through, to see their stances on why Argos should claim them, as well as their suffering of being forced to flee from their home country. Yet we also see King Pelasgos's dilemma, played diligently by Will Kelly, on whether he should bring in the refugees. It will either offend Zeus or declare war on Egypt. His resolution is to pull out a referendum for the citizen to vote.
At night, the Egyptians land on where the suppliant women are staying. They try to snatch the women back onto their ships. King Pelasgos come to rescue, defeating the Egyptians back, and tell the suppliant women that the vote is in, and they can enter the city.
While the Egyptians are presented as stereotypical antagonists, King Pelasgos and the women's father Danaus are played as honest and dignified characters (Lockyer is fascinatingly versatile as both Danus and the Egyptian Herald). We as the audience can see the intelligence and insight of King Pelasgos's worries, while Danaus also professes his love to his daughters on foreseeing danger from the Egyptians, entering the city again to rally up with the citizens of Argos and rescue his daughters.
With this being presented in Gray's production, there is no chance that THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN is a one-sided representation on a, or several, political agenda. It also does not point a finger at a person or a group to blame (apart from the Egyptians). The referendum becomes the most significant element in the whole crisis. The citizens of Argos is the helping hand to these refugees because of democracy, yet does that mean the conflict is over? The result of the vote is somehow affected by Danaus's rally, and after the citizens welcome the suppliant women, does that mean the suppliant women or the citizens will live in the city in peace with each other? I think Gray ends the play with this question mark, for us to think about what is the next step after these refugees have entered the city.
Same as Aeschylus's original intention, THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN is more a cautionary tale to the dignified citizens, the audience in the community who is part of the theatrical ritual. It leaves us an incomplete feeling of reflecting our own lives, which politics plays a part. To end the Hong Kong Arts Festival with such feeling is a brave but also a blasting idea.
THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN at Hong Kong City Hall Theatre
The 46th Hong Kong Arts Festival
Closed on 25th March 2018