Euripides' Phoenician Women
Tranlsated by David Thomson
Directed by Katie Mitchell
Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Simeon Underwood
The cuttings sent by the RSC Press Office were unanimously positive. The critics expressed some discomfort at having to sit through two hours without an interval, but this was virtually the only common area of complaint. Otherwise, the reviews abound with phrases like 'magnificent and devastating', 'engrossing', 'stunning in its intensity', 'elemental theatre which piles on the agony to terrific effect', 'theatre stripped thrillingly to its bare bones', 'chillingly, compellingly contemporary', 'punishingly powerful', 'bleakly moving', 'rigorous, harrowing, incisive', 'eloquent and enthralling' --piling on the plaudits to terrific effect. One critic comments 'Kate Mitchell's production is among the very best modern stagings of a Greek classic: a near-perfect match of director with material', and few of the mainstream critics would dissent from this opinion.
Certainly there was much to admire in the production. In terms of the issues raised by staging Greek tragedy, there were a number of impressive performance features such as the relationship between different types of movement (and stillness), the range of speech types, and the significance of exit and entrance. Unusually for a modern production, the chorus almost made sense as a dramatic device; and equally unusually, its lyric odes were left uncut. There is no denying that the production operated at a level of acute intelligence. It did not aim at complete authenticity: for example, there were no masks, and female actors were used both in the chorus and in performance roles (unlike, for example, the National Theatre Oresteia).
For me the most irritating and disturbing breach of Greek theatrical convention was the lack of segregation between chorus and actors (company acting of a kind which is more Brechtian than Euripidean): unlike some of the critics, I could just about cope with Eteocles and Polyneices re-appearing as the two messengers, but I had serious problems with the various characters visibly appearing from and disappearing into the Chorus. All explanations of the role of the Chorus in Greek tragedy which make any sense are predicated on its separateness from the actors. Nevertheless, one could still smell Greekness in the production, and not just because of the thyme twigs which were handed out to the audience as they entered the theatre.
So why then was it all so unsatisfying?
The first and most immediate problem was that several of the key actors seemed unsure of their roles. Jocasta's dry, realistic regionalism seemed at first a clever way to handle the matter-of-fact narrative of the Prologue and its startling revisionism of the end of Oedipus the King (including the need to explain why she is still alive to deliver it): but it precluded any development later on, notably in her speech after the failed reconciliation between Polyneices and Eteocles. Polyneices failed to cope with the demands of theatre in the round. Oedipus, coming on after a huge build-up throughout the play, lacked presence and pain.
The second problem is the play itself. Enough has been written on the notion of the dramatic unities for one to treat that concept with caution; the structure of The Phoenician Women, however, is rambling to the point of being picaresque. If a play has been 'ignored or underrated for more than 2,000 years', as one critic put it, there may be good reasons for this.
A third problem brings together play and production: what is the purpose of the exercise? The Penguin translation places the play firmly in the historical context of the late 5th century: 'In 409 the end of the war, the total defeat and humiliation of Athens, was still five years ahead, but it was clearly and inevitably coming'. An alternative reading would be to read in it a self-reflexive history of Greek tragedy: it is a patchwork of allusion to material from earlier plays, especially at its beginning and its end, and much of its energy comes from its variations upon them. But where the audience of the late 5th century Athens could recognise both themes easily, they are not available to the audience of late 20th century London.
This particular production offers no guidance as to why this play at this time. Even last year's fairly awful National Theatre production of Trojan Women placed itself in the context of modern warfare and, particularly, the Bosnian conflict. The critics of Phoenician Women also go in for a great deal of 'Euripides Our Contemporary' stuff: in addition to the obvious mentions of Bosnia, Sarajevo and the Balkans, they bring in civil wars in Ulster and Rwanda. Eteocles is imaginatively compared to Saddam Hussein. Euripides is given posthumous honours as 'a war correspondent' and 'a social realist'. One critic even teasingly describes the temptation to see Phoenician Women as a '"women's issue" play', in part because 'it is directed and designed by women and has lighting, music, movement and sound all created by women' and in part because of its '"don't men make a mess of things" polemic'. But having shared this temptation with the reader at loving length, the critic then ostentatiously resists it, on the grounds that the production does so too. And in a particularly interesting article in The Daily Telegraph on 29 June 1996, Katie Mitchell, the producer, herself writes '.... the references to Bosnia are restrained: it would be patronising and insulting to the audience to underline them': which would be fair enough if, stripped of overt topicality, the play had alternatives to offer in its own right. (This also reveals an interesting, if minor point in the semiology of contemporary theatre: for this production there was no programme, only a cast list handed out at the end. With most productions by the major theatre companies, the programme exists in part as manifesto, offering the audience a clue as to how to read the production.)
The fourth and final point is broader still. It seemed to me that there was a disjunction between the theatre and the play. The Pit, for those who do not know it, is a basement studio theatre with seating for perhaps 200 spectators on steeply raked seats; the scaffolding on which the seating is erected or from which the lighting hangs is left bare. It promises an experience which is at once theatrical and intimate. The Phoenician Women, on the other hand, is anything but intimate. Its subjects are the siege of a city and the exile of a dynasty. Now it is not impossible to cover large-scale subjects at the Pit. One of the more successful recent productions there was Moby Dick, and works do not get more cosmic than that. But because of the proximity between actors and audience, character moves centre stage (as it were). The real subject of Moby Dick is Ahab's magnificent obsession.
Even if we allow the concept of character to be meaningful in Greek tragedy, which some writers would deny, the Oedipus plays focus on one figure and Antigone on two: The Phoenician Women, by contrast, moves seamlessly in its rapid sequence of narrative through a whole series of different figures in centre stage. It is not just a play but a sequence of plays, each with its own protagonist. On the spectrum of dramatic priorities running from characterisation to narrative, it is well towards the latter end; and if we map this against a parallel spectrum of theatre architectures from The Pit to the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, this may be a case of the wrong play in the wrong place.
In the cuttings there are a couple of interesting comments which reveal something of modern attitudes to these questions. In one, a critic comments 'Mitchell triumphantly proves that Greek tragedy is at its best, and most moving, when played with a direct, uncluttered intimacy'. If this is true - and it is not completely silly - it implies that when Greek tragedy, a large-scale, public art form, is performed in the modern theatre, it is best performed on its more intimate stages; and if this is true, this paradox of cultural relativism has important implications for our appreciation both of the plays and of their performance history. The second is worth quoting at greater length: 'Director Katie Mitchell has said that her aim has been "to recreate the atmosphere of performance in an amphitheatre." Well, The Pit isn't exactly a 14,000-seat open air arena but the atmosphere is at least semi-religious, which is perhaps enough since Euripides was (if not an atheist) at least agnostic about the Greek gods.'
There is some rather un-Greek logic about the comments of both Katie Mitchell and the critic in this paragraph. But what it does do is to suggest another reason for the failure of this production. Some post-modernist writers have argued that translation is impossible, or that the content of the source text is completely 'recreated' through the values of the translator. Similarly, there is an inevitable impossibility of 'recreating' Greek tragedy on the modern stage, whether in the round or behind the proscenium arch, and modern productions are only justified if they have a purpose, transcending or even exploiting the inauthenticities. Because of its ostentatious self-restraint, purpose is what seemed to be lacking from the present production - unless its purpose was as a dramatic exercise in foregrounding the paradoxes of its own staging.
(Simeon Underwood was a university administrator for 17 years before taking a Postgraduate Diploma in Classics at King's College London last year.)