Euripides' Trojan Women

directed by Debbie Challis and Mark Powell
presented by Dionysoc
in association with GTG
5 December, 1996
The Hexagon
Midlands Arts Centre
Cannon Hill Park
Birmingham B12 9QH

Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
School of Theatre Studies
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL

The Hexagon is a venue not so much intimate as cramped. There no room for spectators to avoid or evade or distance themselves from either the players or each other. It is as unlike Euripides' original production space as it is possible to get, with only the tiniest of proscenium spaces allotted to the actors, the rest of the space taken up by steep knees-to-neck wooden seating in an absurdly small semicircle around the tiny patch of floor in front of the curtain. It seemed at first that even the reduced chorus of six which Dionysoc had chosen to employ in their production would never fit, yet the lack of breathing space worked in great part to their advantage.

There was no set to speak of, only a jumble of trash, detritus of war: crumpled foil, torn photographs, bits of newspaper, empty half-crushed cans. Hecuba sat slumped in a corner, asleep, nearly under the feet of those in the front row. And there among the clutter came Poseidon, slumming, in a dinner jacket, hair slicked back, smoking a cigarette from a holder, as if he had strayed from a party in The Great Gatsby. When Athene walked down the stairs from the top level of the auditorium to join him she looked as if she had come from the same party, out for a breath of air, immaculate and slick in pleated white. Costume and characterization worked perfectly to provide these gods with the cruel callousness of those who hold others in contempt for suffering things from which they are immune. 'It is a shame,' the programme notes, 'that Women of Troy has so much relevance today.'

In dedicating their production to the women of Somalia, Kurdistan, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Zaire, the company was obviously interested in highlighting that relevance, but it was not done heavy-handedly. The clothing of the mortal characters seemed to come from a more recent age than that of the gods, but was not anchored to a specific situation. The language of the translation (apparently Vellacott's) did not seem to have been modified or updated. The Greeks wore vaguely British military fatigues without insignia; the Trojan women they had enslaved, apart from Hecuba herself, wore pyjama-like POW suits.

The chorus solved the problem of space by spending much of its time huddling or cowering, in pairs, as far back into the stage space as they could get. Like Hecuba, they were smudged with dirt and their clothes were torn, but even in slavery the distinction between the queen and her people was clear. Claire Warden's Hecuba was tall, stately, solidly built, and deep-voiced; the six women who represented all her fellow slaves might have been her children literally as well as figuratively, for they were all smaller and slimmer, and moved with jerky hysteria rather than ponderous grief. All had clearly studied the physiology of acute suffering, and sustained an unbearable level of fear and pain throughout the entire production.

This proved exhausting for the audience as well as the cast. It is an unfortunate fact that the highest tones of a female voice grate even on the ears of women, that we instinctively repsect a deep voice when it is loud and cringe at a high one. Trojan Women is a relentless play; the audience should not be able to escape the suffering it presents, or to ignore it. But neither should the audience find itself sympathizing with the Magistrate in Lysistrata who blames the wails of women at the Adoneia for the decision to send what turned out to be a suicide mission to Sicily. There is a kind of cringing and fluttering and blubbering which really does encourage the most compassionate of us to kick the complainer, however just the complaints.
Ally Kennan's Cassandra provided a welcome break and presented the wide range and rapid fluctuation of emotion her character requires quite masterfully. Her 'marriage torch' was a single fizzing sparkler, and not a very lively one. She wore bridal white and wilting flowers and expressed her madness with a quizzical, happy enthusiasm very like that of Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia in Zefferelli's film of Hamlet. She was convincing without going over the top, angry and then grieving in her few moments of lucidity. The chorus shied away from her, horrified. Talthybius was downright violent in his disgust, his shouting a means to disguise either pity, or, more likely, the fear that Cassandra's prophecies were true.
I would myself have expected more numbness and shock from the chorus, even a deadness of tone in some of their speeches, but this was not to be. They never collapsed into the kind of despair which enabled Hecuba to keep both our respect and their own. Their height of agony forced Andromache (Gina Durbin) to an extreme of shrillness in demonstrating that her grief, her loss, was worse than theirs. Matthew Cooke's Astyanax was far calmer than his mother. The lumpy body bag with which he was replaced seemed far too small to hold even shattered remains of a boy that age, a small inconsistency which nevertheless proved a distraction.

Helen wore deep green satin, shoulders bare, hair smooth. Jennie Hutchinson played her as both seductive and predatory. Peter Clark's Menelaus was, surprisingly, not a weak buffoon, and sounded sincere in his promise to kill her, especially as he came near strangling her on stage. Her wiles seemed not to work on him, which is perhaps a problem of interpretation, because we must be able to see, as Hecuba does, that Menelaus will weaken and Helen will indeed queen it in Sparta once more. As it is, he drags Helen away in a fashion little different from the way Talthybius and the soldiers half-carry the struggling chorus members, one by one, up the stairs and away to their fates.

This production has, quite rightly, been entered in the 42nd National Student Drama Festival (2-9 April, 1997). It represents a considerable achievement by student actors who allow the play to speak for itself without feeling that Euripides needs assistance in getting his point across.

Sallie Goetsch
University of Warwick