The Suppliant Women, directed by Ramin Gray, presented by The Royal Exchange, Actors Touring Company and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh; March 10 2017.
In a call back to the custom of ancient Greek theatre, a libation is given to Aphrodite before David Greig and director Ramin Grey’s interpretation of The Suppliant Women begins. Following speeches that serve as the prologue, red wine, that might be coloured water, is splashed around the outer edge of the orchestra directly from the bottle by a member of the local community, who has also given a warmly received speech, as incense burns sweetly.
It’s a simple orchestra as traditionally would be the case, scratched white bricks comprising the whole circle. There is no scenery and props will be limited too. Omar Ebrahim who will feature in dual roles in the play – principally as Danaos, the father of the suppliant women who flee Egypt and seek refuge in Argos, but also as the Egyptian herald later charged with retrieving the suppliant women – explains this practice in its centre, turning a slow steady circle as he does so. In ancient Greece members of the public would act as patrons directly funding plays by dramatists such as Aeschylus. This was a source of civic and personal pride and for wealthy citizens considered a duty.
I suppose the modern equivalent is the list of theatre members, donors, supporters and benefactors in the back of my programme. Although this doesn’t really tally with just how integral to politics, society and culture theatre was for the Greeks. And I suppose they didn’t have airports and corporate construction companies. The Dionysia, a huge festival of theatre created and held in Athens each year from around 508 BC onwards incorporated a prestigious competition pitting plays by the three best tragedians of the day against one another.
A fragment from one of the lost companion plays to The Suppliant Women which was found on a rubbish tip, as much other important archaeological evidence from this era has been, is also read out. Tragedies were often trilogies, so two plays The Egyptians and The Danaids bit the dust. In this short extract Aphrodite speaks about her fecundity, sexual desire; really this play is a couple of middle fingers up to Aphrodite. It cannot escape the audience’s notice that some of the ‘women’ sat and kneeling all around the stage as the preliminaries occur are girls of around sixteen. They would have been fair game for marriage by ancient Greek standards, but it makes the text feel more than a bit creepy for a modern audience.
The Suppliant Women also is perhaps the least stereotypically tragic tragedy you could see since it contains not one act of violence, no deaths, no deplorable or shocking turn of events. Yet it does, since the act of resistance carried out by Danaos and his daughters in leaving Egypt for Greece and rejecting marriage to their cousins, pledging to remain chaste, is a rather stunning gamble.
The location tonight is Argos of course, all the action takes place within the sanctuary of the Temple of Zeus where the women have taken refuge. The adaptation itself is an exuberant, colourful and bang up-to-date retelling, subtly touching on contemporary themes while staying true to Aeschylus’ original plot and the classical tradition of tragedy. The music composed by John Browne exemplifies this. He plays the traditional Greek instrument the aulos (sometimes two at a time!) wonderfully and dynamically alongside percussionist Ben Burton. Music, particularly strong rhythms are vital to this adaptation. Most of the play is sung and the rest delivered in a combination of chant and rap. At times the women aggressively beat rhythms on their own bodies. When they are left alone to pray in the hot temple as their father disappears with soldiers and the King to make entreaties on their behalf they imitate the sounds of the hot countryside around them, insects, ambient noises and a beautiful, sighing song grows out of a goat’s ee-aw.
The melodies and rhythms are at once ancient and modern. Browne explains in the program that for the play he researched ancient Greek music (as best he could given the obviously limited sound sources) to complement his own interests in Early music and pop. It works fantastically well. From a dark little alcove in the circle they are the pulsing heart of this adaptation tirelessly driving everything along. They turn the atmosphere from one of potent hysteria to shaded contemplation then back again complementing the action on-stage. It’s so nice to hear live music during a play given the propensity for pre-recorded and played in sound in many productions. Greek tragedy happened in real time, one of the three Aristotelian unities: unity of time, unity of place (hence the singular temple location) and unity of action (only a main plot, no sub-plots, is developed). The live music heightens the sense that the events unraveling on stage are occurring across a twenty-four hour span.
Gray and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies’ staging is energetic and tribal as the girls work themselves into a righteous, agitated fury of sisterhood which switches easily to alacrity at their new-found freedom. Their suppliant branches are tangled with white plastic that look like strips of carrier bags. Perhaps this is representative of their wild status, they are after all both ‘in the wild’ now, so to speak, and a wildly unstoppable force since their fallback plan, should they be denied asylum, is to commit mass suicide by hanging themselves from the temple statues, therefore bringing disgrace on the city. This plan is explained in a wonderfully arranged set piece where the women form a circle and each raises her black shawl to conceal the length of their person. Then they drop them at their feet, step away and leave a black circle on the stage. Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos has never seen or heard anything like this before and his face is a picture. You feel he instinctually wants to help but there is a bigger political game to play.
White is also the colour of surrender, but the women will not settle for that. Indeed the whole play extols the worth of not doing this, of fighting for ownership of their own bodies and destinies, rather than allowing men to decide what should be done with them. Perhaps then the cheap, waste plastic is meant to intimate the lack of value placed on their freedoms, rights and independence by the Egyptian men who pursue them.
Their prayers to Zeus for protection and entreaties to Pelasgos for goodwill and tolerance recall those other rites, as their ranks bring a highly organised cacophony to the theatre space. The women storm, stomp and careen around the stage dancing in formation, air-punching, chanting, yelping, singing, shouting. Gemma May as the head daughter has extremely strong presence in the way she interacts with the other women and interjects with Pelasgus and Danaos. Pelasgus is a slick, intelligent and reasonable operator. Batterham plays the role with charm and command. He is dressed in a grey suit, bog standard office or perhaps election candidate attire. The womens’ dress is very contemporary, jogging bottoms, trainers, t-shirts, hoodies, not new, somewhat worn-in. Their colourfulness is totally appropriate. Greek theatre wasn’t the white-washed thing that we are taught it is by marble archaeological remnants and ruins; tragedy was full of colour. The girls let off confetti cannons when they learn that they have been granted asylum and their multi-coloured payloads go everywhere.
Add to this the program’s cover image of a woman in a life jacket gesturing from one vessel to a small boat out at sea crammed with people, and it’s impossible not to think of the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis across Europe. There is an emphasis on words like migrant and outsider. The countries around Greece such as Syria and Egypt are pointedly named too. It’s not really a coincidence that these happen to be countries where large volumes of people are looking to escape and already have eluded war, destitution and repression. It’s also hard not to think about the current status of EU citizens within the UK and vice-versa. The play pushes you to think about the current obstinacy and nastiness of our communities and our treatment of immigrants. The fact that Greek democracy and theatre when dealing with such issues is way more considered and intelligent than most of what Brexit Britain serves up speaks volumes. It’s sad when a two thousand and odd year old play seems to be able to deal with these things in a more sophisticated and human way. Have we really become this stupid and ignorant?
The Greeks were far from perfect though. Despite their vehemence and strength the suppliant women are still subject to the authority of men. Indeed the average female Greek citizen was confined to the house and domestic duties, and had very little say in cultural and political affairs. Ultimately it is Pelasgos and their father who must speak on their behalf, even if the people of Argos, men and women alike, all get to vote and later come out dressed entirely in black with fertility/marriage offerings of small green stems. Needless to say, these are staunchly refused by all the women who have agreed with their father to do everything possible to remain pure. Fortunately for the girls, they have a persuasive, intelligent father, and a king who is open-minded, progressive and fair. Of course his ultimate goal is to do whatever necessary to shore up his own political power, but you feel that his helping the women is his natural instinct anyway.
At a late point in the play, the lights fade and by candlelight more of the women in the chorus individually get to say a few lines, a nice touch for those who have worked very hard but could be overlooked. Following this is a terrific set-piece where the Herald and sailors violently interrupt and storm the temple. They are dressed in black and grey like the world’s most sexist hardcore punk group. As only total yobs do, they prowl around the stage’s perimeter, their mantra one of their intentions to dominate and punish the women through whipping, before Ebrahim as the Herald takes the first desecrating steps into the temple space itself. The others follow and chase the women. Shortly after this Pelasgos returns with soldiers and there is a great face-off between the two sets of men, the Argos men blocking their potential enemy in divided lines with staffs, their enemy menacingly holding clubs, the women in massed ranks ready to go.
This is an exceptionally vibrant and dynamic re-imagining of Aeschylus’ play that’s full of conviction. It’s incredibly moving and uplifting to watch these actors show such commitment to a two thousand year old piece of drama and breathe it full of new life. By the time the actors break into a final chorus or exodus that passionately calls for equal rights for all women, this version’s youth and rebelliousness is sealed. It’s also demonstrative of the continuing relevance and importance of producing Greek tragedy. In many ways The Suppliant Women is more forward thinking than some of our contemporary attitudes to gender and sexual equality. The sheer energy of the female chorus becomes a powerful demonstration of the importance of tolerance and decency, showing that these are values that have survived in the human spirit for millennia through drama, music and art and that these will still be around in future so long as they are enshrined in such works.