Reviewed by Antony Keen
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London
The Cambridge Greek play has come a long way in the century plus of its history, but it continues to perform an important role, as one of the few opportunities one gets to hear a Greek play in the original language. This time, it is Trojan Women. This play, with its theme of the devastation that follows war and the pain visited upon the non-combatants, cannot help but make one think of the war-torn Balkans. This is clearly not something Jane Montgomery wants to shy away from, as she has cast students from former Yugoslavia in the roles of Hekabe and Helen.
The action opens with a young girl in pigtails and a boy in a sailor suit playing with their sandcastles. These are Athene and Poseidon. The idea of the gods as petulant Victorian children at first seems a bit odd -- where is the grandeur? -- but you soon realize that this is perfectly fitting for Euripides. If there is a weakness in this opening it is that Paul Wood as Poseidon doesn't seem to fully understand the words he is saying (the only person in the whole cast who seems in any way uncertain with the Greek text). After they have plotted the undoing of the Greeks, the god return to their corners of the front of the stage, and stay there. This turns out not to be as distracting as it seems, and you soon forget they are there -- until you glance in their direction and realize they are subtly commenting on the action of the play. As Hekabe hopes for the future of a new Troy under her grandson's lead, Athene is building a house of cards, only to knock it down as Talthybius arrives.
The action takes place in what appears to be a drained swimming bowl, with the Chorus chained to the wall, Hekabe crawling, or leaning on her stick, or sat in a wheelchair. Other participants enter at the back, sometime wheeled on in trolleys. Of the three big set-pieces of the play (Cassandra, Andromache, and Menelaus/Helen), Cassandra's appearance is probably the least successful. She prances about the stage in a undone strait-jacket, long sleeves flapping all over the place, as if to say, "Look at me, I'm mad". Like many recent Cassandra's, this one seems afflicted by an attempt to rationalize Cassandra's madness in modern psychological terms. This doesn't really work -- Cassandra's madness derives from her knowledge of inescapable doom and her inability to get anyone else to listen, not from anything that can be cured by Prozac or lithium.
The Andromache scene passes the time more than anything else, but then it is the weakest written of the three scenes. Andromache herself, costumed in gingham and looking like she has escaped from a Doris Day movie, does not make too much of an impression. The entrance of Menelaus and Helen really sets things rolling. Helen is a very difficult part to cast -- she is supposed to be universally accepted as the most beautiful woman in the world, yet each member of the audience is going to have different ideas about this (personally, I find Irene Pappas' Helen in Michael Caccoyanis' film of the play to be totally overshadowed by Vanessa Redgrave at her most radiant in the role of Andromache).
Montgomery has (like Caccoyanis before her) gone for a "Balkan beauty", which perhaps doesn't work for all the audience. To make the point, she is clad in bathing suit, Miss World sash, fur coat and tiara, and is dragged on at the end of a chain. The usual way to play this scene is for Hekabe to present her argument for killing Helen to a Menelaus who is too tied up in Helen's charms to listen, and so Montgomery begins. But right from the start there is a difference in that Hekabe never looks at either Menelaus or Helen until almost the end of the scene. Almost all of the debate is conducted with her back turned towards them, suggesting the disdain a Trojan queen still holds for her Greek captors. As Hekabe speaks, Helen pouts, smokes, and fondles the chain -- Menelaus can chain her up any time he wants. Menelaus is captivated by her, occasionally remembering to answer Hekabe. Then something odd happens. Menelaus starts to listen to the Trojan queen, and leaves seemingly resolved to punish her. We know that he will not go through with it, but, save for a Romanian production in which Helen was stripped, raped by a bear and beheaded in the follow-up to this scene, her victory is less assured in Montgomery's version than in any other I've seen.
The Chorus are one of the better attempts I have seen at this difficult part of tragedy. It has to be said that bright young things from Cambridge have some difficulty being convincing war widows, but they do make a brave stab at it, and convey well the transformation of the Chorus' attitude, from self-pity at the beginning to spirited defiance in a final ode that really makes you sit up and take notice. In this they are aided by Keith Clouston's evocative and subtle score.
The glue holding the whole play together, of course, is Hekabe herself; if that character fails, the whole play fails with her. Montgomery is very lucky in Marta Zlatic. It cannot be easy to be directed in a language which is not your native one to deliver lines in yet a third language, but Zlatic never falters, giving a performance that belies her age. Hers is a Hekabe desperately trying, and perhaps succeeding, to maintain her dignity as one by one all the props of her life are ripped from her.
After a largely successful production Montgomery can be forgiven for the ritualistic ending, where Hecuba and the Chorus are covered in blood pouring from the ceiling. Overall, whilst this is not the best Trojan Women I have seen (the above-mentioned Romanian production, a spectacular piece of theatre, stands head-and-shoulders above almost anything else I've experienced), it is a piece of work of which all involved can be proud.
Department of Classics
Royal Holloway, University of London