A review of Euripides' The Phoenician Women
Translated by David Thompson
Directed by Katie Mitchell
Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at
The Other Place
23 November, 1995
by Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL
Take the elements of the Oedipus legend used to form the plotlines of Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes and Sophocles' Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannos, and Oedipus at Colonus. Give the myth a good shake by subtracting one of the most familiar parts of the story. Add a virgin sacrifice for a total of four deaths by the play's end and what do you get? Euripides' improbable-seeming and remarkably playable tragedy, The Phoenician Women. 'When you read it, it seems ridiculous,' a colleague once commented. 'It's got everything in it but the Sphinx.' Even the winged menace with her riddles, however, comes in for lengthy treatment during choral passages.
The play seems so unwieldy that many scholars assert that a large proportion of its 1766 lines were not written by Euripides at all, but added by actors who wanted to beef up their roles. Possibly this is so, but even if the text is not authentic Euripides, it is certainly authentic theater. Trust actors to make additions which improve the work's performability.
Since the RSC's production opened on 10 October of this year, Katie Mitchell and company have been hailed in various newspapers for rediscovering this 'forgotten classic.' Nikos Charalambous and the State Theatre of Cyprus might be a bit put out to hear that, as their powerfully visual production toured to Epidavros in 1990, but nevertheless the ensemble at The Other Place deserves all the plaudits it has received for seamlessly transferring a very large play into the intimate surroundings of a small indoor theater.
The choice of venue was no doubt dictated in part by the same considerations which put Ion in The Pit last year: an obscure Greek tragedy might not have the pulling power to fill a main-stage auditorium. Actors work better in a full house; the company looks better if it can sell out shows. (This performance was certainly packed, though there were a few empty seats whose holders had paid and stayed away.)
The entire production, in fact, was characterized by just such intelligent decisions. A new translation is always a worthwhile investment, and David Thompson produced one in a playable and very English style with hard- hitting words of short syllables predominant. The budget--small perhaps for the RSC but far more lavish than any university production has access to-- was spent intelligently and with taste. The designers (all female) worked together to produce a richly detailed, convincingly consistent, and yet historically unplaceable combination of set, costume, hair, makeup, music, and movement.
Fresh thyme smouldered in a metal bowl, evoking the aromatic dry heat of the Greek countryside in summer. Three plaster statues in Minoan poses and Cycladic shades of white presided as divinities over each end of the playing space, which occupied the center of the room, surrounded on three sides by boxlike wooden bleachers marked off with Greek letters. Members of the Theban royal family were tattooed around the arms in blue patterns with a faintly Mayan look while the members of the chorus, carrying heavily distressed suitcases, had red beads strung on thin braids which unfortunately were far too sloppy to provide the effect of proper cornrowing. Matching beads clicked on the hems of their buff-colored traveling coats as the wool flared out and dropped back.
The chorus entered at a run and circled the stage in full cry, and every ode displayed a combination of energetic movement and gentler rhythmic tableaux. They provided their own music, from clapping hands to harmonicas to the eerie beauty of wooden pestles circling the rims of their brass offering-bowls. The parodos was strongly reminiscent of Jewish folk dancing, and their singing even sounded Hebrew until I finally distinguished a few unmistakably Greek words. The parallel is appropriate, for the Phoenicians were a Semitic people. Each chorus member was given a name, a personality, and a chance to take center stage within one or another of the odes, miming, narrating, leading while the others provided music and their often-unintelligible chants.
It was not until quite late in the play that I noticed that the numbers of the chorus were occasionally swelled by the presence of the speaking actors. The chorus often withdrew from the center of the acting space to stand against the back wall near the brazier of thyme, and individual members departed or entered unobtrusively while our attention was focused on the central characters, most of whom had distinctive head-coverings or costumes. Given that some characters, such as Oedipus, do not appear until very late in the play, this practice was an efficient use of actors.
The ensemble technique served the production well in another way: when Michael Gould, who regularly played Creon, was taken suddenly ill before the November 25 performance, Christopher Middleton, previously a member of the core chorus with no speaking role, stepped flawlessly into the part. While he made an incongruously young Creon (he could easily have been another son of Lorraine Ashbourne's Jocasta), he invested the part with a great deal more sympathy than Michael Gould appears to have done. In spirit he seemed genuinely akin to his sister, wishing to spare the pain of individuals, deeply attached to his son. Only overwhelming grief at Menoeceus' death gave him the harshness to deny burial to Polyneices and to drive Oedipus from Thebes.
Lorraine Ashbourne's Jocasta was a remarkably true-to-life picture of suffering and its aftermath. Her prominent cheekbones and fierce eyes gave her a look of having been hammered into her present shape; her ragged dark gown and rejection of the comforts of wealth and royalty was more defiance than despair. Her prologue was a story told so many times as to be drained of passion, its telling an unsuccessful exorcism, full still of bitterness and resentment at the needlessness, the obstinacy, the folly of the curse which her dead-alive husband had set on his sons. All very English in its way, this grief and horror borne with no tearing of hair or wailing, the churning core of emotion thrust down beneath a brittle composure and an implacable will, the words which were speech, not poetry, delivered in what my students assured me was a Mancunian accent.
Yet when Polyneices appeared, travel-stained and wary, interrogating the chorus, she ran to him, embraced him, thumped him on the back, and cried 'My boy!' It seemed for a moment overly demonstrative, yet was appropriate, for these sons with whom she has so little patience are nearly all that she has left. The disheveled Polyneices seems at first to have the better case, the assured, self-righteous Eteocles in his clean white robe and simple crown to speak selfishly of power. But both display the obstinancy and inability to back down which was the source of the quarrel between their father and their grandfather, and Polyneices will destroy the city if he cannot have it. They are too much like the father who is also their brother; Jocasta has been unfortunate in all her sons.
Antigone, on the other hand, is all innocence when first she arrives on stage, through a trap door which transforms the floor to the rooftop, hauling up the elderly female slave who takes the place of the traditional Paidogogos. She is both eager and shy, gowned and veiled in white, huge- eyed and sweet-faced. At the time of this production Lucy Whybrow was doubling her role as Antigone with that of Shakespeare's Juliet, in which she failed to win much acclaim, and Anya in The Cherry Orchard, for which she has since been given a prestigious award for young actors. I did not see either of the other plays, but her Antigone convinced me that the award was well-earned, and that Ophelia might be a better role for her than Juliet.
Euripides' Antigone begins in baffled innocence, impressed by the armies and warriors and proud of her brother Polyneices' show of strength even as she is unable to understand why her brothers must fight or what motivates men to war. But she has been too sheltered, and when she sees her brothers kill one another and her mother fall on a bloodied sword, her innocence cracks open to reveal not only a terrible force of will equal to that of other members of her family, but a Dionysiac madness of denial and escape. The heat of the packed theater was amplified by the buzzing of flies as she dragged the cloth-wrapped bodies onto the stage, one by one, laboriously but with great strength showing in her now-bare, tattooed arms. She burst erratically into dizzying dance, taking up the earlier cry of the chorus: 'Iakkhou dei, Iakkhou dei.' The bodies themselves (trying not to breathe too noticeably) were more decorous than their mourner, less horrifying than the shapeless, heavy burden of Menoeceus, which Creon had wrapped in his own green robe and half-crawled onto the stage, reduced by his loss to an almost foetal position, himself as broken as Antigone, who bestows flowers upon them and sprinkles them with water.
Oedipus, though visibly young enough to be Jocasta's son, moved and spoke like an old man, angry, stubborn, bitter, shoving his blind self forward, as much satisfied as sorrowing that his curse upon his sons has come to pass. No one accepts blame, or finds humility, only rage and despair and the bestial viciousness and defiance which come to those who have been too far brutalized, making them, like Oedipus and Antigone, unable to live among other human beings. Once again Euripides hammers home his point that suffering does not stop when we have learned from it.
University of Warwick
(Sallie Goetsch is working on developing an 'Are you ready for Ancient Theatre' diagnostic test together with David Lovelock of the University of Arizona.)