Royal Holloway, University of London
March 31, 1995
Reviewed by Theodora Carlile
Integral Liberal Arts Program
Saint Mary's College
Moraga, California 94575
This production, on the Noh stage at Royal Holloway, University of London, was rare if not unique. A chance to see the seldom- performed Suppliants is rare. Even rarer, for a Westerner, is the opportunity to witness a live performance on a Noh Stage. (The one at Royal Holloway, a gift of the Japanese government to the drama department, is an authentic Noh theatre space, minus only the traditional roof over the wooden platform.) Rarest of all was the opportunity to view Greek tragedy performed on such a stage.
Under the co-direction of Poh Sim Plowright and David Wiles, a small group of theatre students considered the problems and possiblities of rendering Aeschylus' play on that stage. Students, all members of a class who had been working together for several months, did double or even triple duty as performers, designers, musicians and crew, completing their work on the project during a scant three week rehearsal/production period. There was no attempt to use only Noh elements or adhere strictly to a Noh style. Rather, as is indicated in the director's program notes, they sought to use a style 'compatible with the aesthetics of...[the Noh]...stage.' Thus the production combines stylistic and production elements of ancient Greek theatre with those of several Asian theatre traditions.
In a talk given earlier at the British Museum, co-director David Wiles remarked on the appropriateness of Greek tragedy on the Noh stage. According to Wiles, Greek drama may have had more affinities with Eastern performance art than with our present concepts and stereotypes of ancient Greek theatre. Our more ordinary ideas of Greek drama are, according to him, largely mediated by Aristotle's concepts, concepts which privilege plot and text over dance, gesture, spectacle and music. It is the familiar mind/body dichotomy of our culture, with body separated from and denigrated far below mind. For Wiles, other traditions of drama, those of China, India and Japan, for example, portray no such sharp distinction and, as a director, he questions whether Greek drama might not be closer to these traditions than we ordinarily suppose.
Recent years have seen a number of notable productions of Greek tragedy which have drawn on elements of Eastern theatre traditions and styles. Among these Wiles aknowledges the Theatre du Soleil's production Les Atrides, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, as having had particular influence on the Suppliants production. Wiles suggests that, as in Les Atrides, the use of ritual elements in costume, mask and make-up and in the choral movements, music and acting style mitigates against any tendency to play or receive the drama as a mere image of reality. Instead, by emphasizing the ceremony and imagery embodied especially in the chorus, the non-textual 'meaning' of the drama might be released.
I approached the event eagerly. Suppliants had always been something of a mystery to me. Would this production give me new insights? I was initially struck by two features of the acting space. The first was the warmth and beauty of the clean, bright wooden floor of the stage. This floor must be covered until dress rehearsal, washed by hand daily and trod on only in clean cloth slippers. I was also struck by the smallness of the acting space, the tight feel of it. One long entrance bridge, down stage right, leads to the platform. A tiny door, upstage right, is the only other entrance/egress.
Three musicians enter in measured step through the door and, seated, take up their instruments to begin. Then comes the chorus, up the bridge, gliding with equally measured but more ornate and complex steps to the drum beats. This chorus, six in this production, represents the fifty virgin daughters of Danaus, and as the title suggests, it is around them rather than some individual protaganist that the story (such as it is) revolves. With their father they arrive in Argos and approache the Altar of Zeus (the stage itself). They are fleeing the marriage demands of their fifty cousins (sons of Aegyptus, Danaus' brother) and are suppliants not only to Zeus, but to the King of Argos, and ultimately to the Argive people, seeking protection from the threat of this feared and loathed marriage demand. They claim kinship ties with Argos and the Argives.
Immediately the Noh stage and the design choices reveal and enhance important elements of the drama. The stage, so impressive on first view, does, unlike the prosaic 'lay' structures or temporarily erected fantasy-lands of the more usual production, lend a sense of 'sacred space.' This is a cherished and unique place: it was here before the production began and will remain after. It is not difficult to believe that it is invested with great power. Moreover the stylized movement, soft 'Indian' costumes, and whiteface make-up intensify the formality and ritual nature of the moment. The group moves as one, obscuring individuality.
The resonance of the floor itself is used to great advantage by the dancers. The stage becomes yet another, in some ways the principal, percussion instrument. Thus the unity between music and meaning, outer and inner, mind and body if you will, is underscored. Furthermore there is more crawling and earthbound cowering than we are accustomed to seeing in the traditional Greek chorus. The seeming affinity of the chorus with something like 'the gods,' with some primal earth source, is alive.
On the other hand the size of the acting space and the asymetry of the exits are more problematic. At the lecture Dr. Nick Lowe, who teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, had asked about this particular difference in the stage, its significance to Greek tragedy and its implications for this particular production. The bridge easily translated into the right parodos of the Greek ampitheatre, but what corresponds to the left? The only candidate is the minute upstage doorway. This missing element undermines, to an extent, the power of the Argive demos, a power given great emphasis in the language of the play.
As for the rhythmic drive of the play, and the significance of imagery in the dramatic experience, my impressions were mixed. This is a play concerned very much with sexuality and in particular sexual violence. The myth of Io, raped or 'taken' by Zeus, is sung and enacted by the chorus and players in a lovely and effective choral sequence. This enactment, with players in cow mask and Zeus mask is, very rightly, given central emphasis in the production. Plot-wise it is significant because it was from that union that the ancestor of the 'suppliants' was conceived. It is that familial tie which binds them to Argos and thus justifies their plee to the king. On the other hand it is a myth which resonates on several other levels. Like Io, the chorus is under threat of forced sex, like her they are placed under the myriad watchful eyes of Argos (not the monster in this case but the people) and like her they must endure exile and displacement. Yet like Io the cow-maiden, the would-be suitors/rapists, those fifty sons of Aegyptus, are often identified with animals and animal nature. This is merely the beginning of a tangle of imagery and mythical reference which complicate this particular drama so utterly. While there was certainly no resolution in this performance (and very likely none can be expected from any production of the play, it being the first of a trilogy whose remaining plays have been lost), still, in the insistent ebb and flow of choral yearning and repulsion, of fear, hatred and desire, a core impulse did begin to suggest itself at the raveled center of the drama.
St. Mary's College
(Theodora Carlile teaches Women's Studies and Theatre at St. Mary's College in California.)