thu 17/04/2014

The Trojan Women, Gate Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

The Trojan Women, Gate Theatre

Caroline Bird's adaptation of Euripides' tragedy sacrifices subtlety for anguish

Dearbhla Molloy and Lucy Ellinson in 'The Trojan Women'Iona Firouzabadi

Not even a cameo by Tamsin Greig can redeem this painful adaptation of Euripides' The Trojan Women. For an hour and a half it screams with anguish, verging at times on the parodic. The production is a puzzle. Caroline Bird has updated the language, stripping the original of much of its poetry and adding expletives. Jason Southgate has designed a brilliantly claustrophobic modern hospital ward as the set, and Noelle Claude has chosen simple, if sometimes bland costumes that could pass for modern outfits (those worn by Helen of Troy are designed by Sonia Rykiel). Yet these are superficial changes. The inclusion of iPhones and cigarettes does not automatically make a work more accessible and relevant. Rounded characters and a good story would do that.

Bird is faithful to the gist of the original, conveying the play's main point about the folly of battle. After the Trojan War, the captive women of Troy share their grief and learn about their fate as the Greeks' concubines and slaves. Women are the spoils of conflict. There's Hecuba, the fallen queen of Troy; Cassandra, her daughter; Andromache, her daughter-in-law; Helen of Troy, whose elopement with Paris caused the war; and the chorus, here played by a pregnant woman. By mixing the old (the gods) with the new (technology), Bird has created a detached world, one that is hard to understand.

This production is framed by two bizarre cameos: the names are a coup for the Gate Theatre, but the dramatic device does not work. Greig, as Athena, the goddess of war, and Roger Lloyd Pack, as Poseidon, the god of the sea, flash up on small screens in a pre-recorded video at the start. They present a patronising prologue more suited to the classroom than the theatre. Lloyd Pack, with his sunglasses and cigarette, tells of the Greeks hiding inside a “massive rocking horse”, before Greig cuts in with “Wrap it up, Jackanory”.

This jars with the rest of the play, which is all anguish and wretchedness. Dearbhla Molloy (pictured above) as Hecuba displays relentless outrage at being left “a queen without a city” and a childless widow. “What will I be now?” she wails. “Somebody's servant. Sewing the names of my enemy's children into their school shirts, arranging oven chips on a baking tray, a slave to the Greeks who massacred my people.” Molloy spends most of the time shouting. There is little nuance. Hecuba shares a room with the Chorus, a lower-class pregnant woman, who moves from despair to disorientated delirium after taking medication. The Chorus, played earnestly by Lucy Ellinson, spends much of the time crying.

In an interesting casting move, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen are played by the same actor. In red striped pyjamas, Louise Brealey – Molly Hooper in Sherlock – conveys the madness of Cassandra convincingly. She scatters grapes, and tips the Chorus's bed at a slant so that her head is dangerously near the floor. Brealey (pictured left) excels at delivering a rapid-fire speech about fire and violence, almost at a whisper. But when she reappears with a son as Andromache, it seems as if this production has turned into a surreal sketch show. It is hard to believe she is a different character. Things worsen when she then comes on as Helen and removes the towel she is wrapped in. While her courage in doing this is admirable, there must be more sophisticated ways to show a character is a whore.

The Trojan Women goes all out on such big gestures. Later a dead baby covered in blood is brought on stage. It seems to be done for shock value, but because of the flat characters it fails to move as much as it should. Christopher Haydon's direction is admirably adventurous, but scenes often become cluttered. Towards the end, one character is pointing a gun, another is shouting, another is on their knees and another is rushing in and out. It verges on the farcical.

Comments

Wow. That's a serious taste

Wow. That's a serious taste malfunction. I disagree with everything I think. The cameos are not bizarre, the framing videos do work, the actors don't spend all their time doing just one thing, both Hecuba and the Chorus are excellent, it is subtle, the profanity does have poetry, I do believe Brearly is three different characters, I do think her brave nude scene works. My favourite bit of this review- "Towards the end, one character is pointing a gun, another is shouting, another is on their knees and another is rushing in and out." as if this somehow a problem.

A most unfair review, I

A most unfair review, I think. It is true that Bird goes all in for brutality and savagery, but there are many moments of genuine emotional depth and complexity (I'm thinking particularly of Hecuba's monologue about the death of Hector and Helen's face-off with Menelaeus) and some tremendously funny turns too. Having the Gods open and close proceedings in irony-rich tones (e.g. defining Helen as "the face that lauched a thousand dicks") through a video screen seemed to me a very appropriate way of registering the distance and disinterest that characterize Euripedes's conception of divine power. Finally, the idea of channelling the Chorus through a single character of a pregnant woman focuses attention to the victims of the war in a way that the reviewer doesn't seem to recognize. One walks out feeling that the only person who's real in all this is that woman and her very human fears and hopes for herself and her baby.

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