Improving Aeschylus

a review of Les Danaides
directed by Silviu Purcarete
National Basketball Arena, Dublin

by Steve Wilmer
Beckett Centre
Trinity College, Dublin

Les Danaides, directed by the Romanian Silviu Purcarete, traveled across Europe during 1996, visiting the Avignon Festival in the summer and finishing at the Dublin Theatre Festival in October. With a cast of over a hundred, it proved a major logistical effort and by the end of the tour the cast were obviously growing weary. 'We're sending out 50 gallons of milk a day,' a festival organiser told the Irish Times. 'About 200 Yorkie bars. About 200 liters of Ballygowan. Just to keep them going.' Nevertheless, it was the hit of the Dublin festival, selling out for its three performances in the National Basketball Arena.

The first half of the production was based on The Suppliants by Aeschylus with the second half apparently devised by the director from the fragmentary information about the rest of the trilogy and from the director's own imagination. The text, which was in French with English surtitles which occasionally worked, seemed to have been cobbled together from The Suppliants and other plays by Aeschylus with occasional borrowings from other material such as Aristotle's Poetics.

The play used a framing device of the gods watching over the mortals. Dressed in modern white suits and sitting at internally lit glass tables on either side downstage, the male and female gods at the start intoned about the fate of humanity and the nature of tragedy. The story then more or less followed the plot of The Suppliants until its end and beyond. Fifty frightened young women dressed in deep blue garments, with their faces covered by stocking-like material with eyes painted on them, vaguely resembling yashmaks, arrived carrying white cases. Their costumes, which looked Islamic, immediately evoked parallels with Islamic refugees in Bosnia during the recent war.

A large suitcase downstage centre, with a lifeless hand hanging out of it like debris from a ship wreck, slowly opened and Danaos, the father of the young women, emerged, played by a bare-breasted middle-aged woman sporting a gray goatee. The androgynous Danaos and his daughters implored the Argives to protect them from the pursuing sons of Aigyptos who were determined to marry them. A blind and crippled King Pelasgos (hobbling about on crutches and wearing sun glasses) voiced his concern that by protecting them he would start a war.

As Pelasgos went off to consult with the citizens of Argos, the story was interrupted by the arrival of Io, who appeared to the refugees in a dream. In an apparent interpolation of lines from Prometheus Bound, the cow-Io told her story of being pursued by a gadfly around Europe and finally gave birth in Egypt to the ancestors of the refugees. At the end of the dream sequence, Pelasgos returned with the news that the Danaids could have sanctuary, whereupon the sons of Aigyptos were sighted approaching.

This moment, which marks the end of The Suppliants, was followed by the arrival on stage of the fifty sons of Aigyptos, bare- chested and wearing bright orange pantaloons, to claim their brides. A battle commenced, with the sons of Aigyptos carrying flaming torches and the women cowering behind their suitcases. The men defeated the Argives and took the women to their beds.

The women then conspired to kill their husbands in their tents (made from their diaphanous costumes) and spiked them with forks in their beds. One woman took pity on her husband. When he discovered the fate of all his murdered brothers, he fled. He returned later to the women in a nightmare, representing their remorse at their violent deeds. His wife, nude and riding the waves of a stormy sea (achieved by the men clothed as satyrs pulling on an enormous blue cloth on which she surfed) dreamt of being raped by Poseidon. At the end of the play the women died and their white cases fell like dominos all round the stage.

The production used very simple devices and props to stunning effect: candles, torches, buckets, suitcases, stainless steel cutlery multiplied fifty times; choreographed movements forward and back, side to side and serpent-like across the immense stage; contrasting colours of orange for the men and dark blue for the women reflecting their respective aggressive and passive characters; an enormous square box floating towards the audience and then retreating. Les Danaides also subtly evoked contemporary social and political parallels such as violence against women, the war in former Yugoslavia and the divisions between the Islamic and Christian worlds. The guiding principle of the gods determining the fate of the mortals was underscored by Zeus, at a side table playing with dominos in the shape of suitcases which, one gradually discovered, anticipated the moves that the characters would make on stage.

Aeschylus's The Suppliants was improved by the additions to the text and story-line. The Suppliants as a text by itself ends on a note of tension, with the arrival of the sons of Aigyptos, but there is very little action in the play. The arrival of the sons of Aigyptos in Les Danaides and the resultant battle of the sexes, with its themes of rape and mass murder made for a much more dramatic spectacle.

Steve Wilmer
Trinity College, Dublin

Steve Wilmer is a lecturer in Drama at the Samuel Beckett Centre at Trinity College Dublin. The production is continuing to tour and can be seen in New York at the Lincoln Center Festival during July 1997.