Sophocles, Women of Trachis
Translated by C.K. Williams and G.W. Dickerson
Directed by C.W. Marshall
October 14-22, 1994
Reviewed by M.C. Bolton
Dept. of Classics
The Theatre Department's production of Women of Trachis was held in the Cazelet Studio on the Loyola Campus of Concordia University. The studio itself is one of the smaller theatres on campus, with an oval shaped acting area, sharply rising tiers of seats and exits at either end of the oval. As the audience looks down on the actors, the impression is one of a classically-shaped ancient Greek theatre, although the overall size is significantly less. The physical contours of this type of theatre requires a careful use of the acting area, since the audience is in close proximity to the actors and the acting area, and indeed, this space was well exploited during the present production.
The walls of the studio were painted a dull black, decorated with symbols of Greek script and classical motifs in a lighter grey and so initially created a sombre mood. The triple arches to the left of the acting area were masked in black, as was the right-hand entrance to the studio, which effectively concentrates attention solely on the lighted actors' area. The actors moved around and on a small boat-shaped podium, raised about two feet from the ground. The characters of the nurse (played by Nathalie Stechysin) and the messenger (Mike Mainguy) were positioned on this structure as the audience entered the studio. The two figures remained in the acting area as the lights were dimmed for Deianeira's entry, a technique which provided an excellent sense of continuity without the interruption of a sudden entrance. The soft spot-lighting of the various characters during particularly dramatic scenes (such as Deianeira's discovery of the vanished piece of cotton wool) effectively concentrated the audience's attention on a specific area. It did not, however, leave the other characters in total blackness - there was always an awareness of their presence in the acting area, and this too provided a certain cohesiveness to the entire structure of the play.
The actors' costumes were neither classical nor modern, but suggestive of a certain generic 'other age'. Deianeira wore a floor-length deep-wine-coloured dress, the sombreness of which matched the complexity of her character well. The messenger was dressed in cape and riding boots, suggesting imminent departure and arrival. The male figures generally wore flowing white shirts and darker pants, but the main intention seemed to be to make the costumes unobtrusive, so that attention was focused on what the actors said, not what they wore. All too often producers try to 'update' the costumes to such an extent that they become jarring on the eye and disruptive to the action. Such was luckily not the case in this production.
The most noticeable costume was perhaps that of the three members of the chorus, who were wearing black tights and bodysuits with loose overblouses of varying colours. This distinctive costume set them apart from the rest of the actors as an autonomous group and enforced the idea of a single entity. However, the colours (green and yellow) were unobtrusive enough not to be glaring, and they were clear against the more monochrome colouring of the other costumes.
As Deianeira moved into the acting area, her first words were simultaneously echoed off-stage by the voice of Heracles, an effect which was unobtrusive enough to provide grandeur and solemnity without being overly dissonant. Deianeira, as played by Sheri Hastings, was a controlled, single-minded woman, loyal to her husband and anxious about his absence. Ms. Hastings gave a strong performance of a complex individual, and the strength of her performance grew as the forces which destroyed Deianeira mounted. Deianeira's initial sympathy for the figure of the silent Iole, played by Lilith Clark, was well reflected, which made her later disgust and anger all the more powerful. Her display of emotion was effectively manipulated and was very rarely overdone. Even at the height of Deianeira's distress, when she is confronted by the agonized Heracles, Ms. Hastings presented a fine-tuned depiction of anguish, avoiding the danger of overacting. Ms. Hastings' portrayal was rich in a focused presentation of grief and despair. Her awe and horror at the discovery that the ball of wool which she had soaked in the Centaur's blood had vanished into a foul wisp of smoke elicited a certain feeling of empathy in the audience.
The actor who plays Heracles, who returns home in the process of dying from the effects of the cloak which Deianeira had smeared with the Centaur's potion, faces a similarly difficult emotional role. Robert Ross Parker had the unenviable task of depicting a man in physical torment. His crawling entrance into the actors' area was shocking and disturbing. It produced a general feeling of unease among the audience without recourse to elaborate costuming or the graphic representation of Herakles' wounds. His portrayal of Herakles' suffering was controlled and potent and he was generally able to avoid the dangers of melodrama. There were only occasional moments of excess in an otherwise positive handling of a difficult role. This was particularly evident in the scenes between Heracles and his son Hyllos (Mike Mainguy). Pain and grief moved well into anger and disbelief with the discovery of Deianeira's role in Heracles' death. The tension between father and son as the realities of the situation were revealed was apparent, and the actors were able to maintain this tension over a good period of time.
The Nurse and Lichas (played by Nathalie Stechysin) provided the necessary support for the reflections of the main characters. The role of Lichas was especially well handled, particularly in his confrontation with the Messenger. The rivalry between the two figures came across clearly, as did Lichas' unwillingness to reveal the truth about Heracles' interest in Iole and his fear of both implicating Heracles and getting himself into trouble.
In his role as the Messenger, Mike Mainguy provided that element of comic relief so often found in the midst of Sophocles' tragedies. His swagger, his combination of servility and assurance were lights of humour in the pathos of the action. The satisfactory crunch as he bit into his apple during his self- satisfied confrontation with the Nurse was an enjoyable and dynamic bit of acting.
Perhaps the most novel technique of this production was the handling of the chorus. The Williams and Dickerson translation broke the chorus into individual phrases which are spoken antiphonally by the various members of the chorus. This demands an acute sense of timing and voice control, in order not to end- stop any particular phrase. The challenge of such a chorus was upheld with some difficulty by the three-member chorus of this production. At times, they were well able to maintain a good consistent flow, with a cohesive shape to the images of the choral odes. Unfortunately, this flow was rather uneven, with momentary gaps and pauses which detracted from the continuity of the choral odes. The chorus is to be commended for their efforts at a particularly difficult technique, although it was apparent that more work needed to be done is this area.
In short, the production was a fine one, which brought spirit and life to the motif of a family triangle of love, and honour and desperation. It confronted the Concordia audiences with the dynamic tensions of Sophoclean tragedy, which too often has been confined to the written page.
(M. Catherine Bolton is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Concordia University in Montreal.)