Thursday 16 March 2017

The Suppliant Women – ATC/Lyceum at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 15/03/17]

Having already seen one version of Aeschylus’s Ἱκέτιδες (Die Schutzbefohlenen) – albeit unrecognisable in its adaptation by Elfriede Jelinek – re-tooled as “The Migrant Crisis Play For Our Times,” I suppose I went in here thinking I knew what to expect; some Ancient Hmming and Greek Hawing that ends up delivering a strong message of compassion and universal love for our fellow humans.


So wrong!

Within moments of Lyceum (Edinburgh) Artistic Director David Greig’s new version of the text starting – a version admittedly crammed with modern usages of “migrant” and “asylum” – we are a) forcibly reminded that this is a play from ancient Greece, and b) that the Ancient Greeks cherished a very different values to us. (If “us” can even still be said to cherish just one set of values.) Yes, there are also similarities of situation, but the basic culture to which they are happening is also immeasurably different to ours in its assumptions. In part it is the differences that make this evening so compelling.

The Story of The Suppliant Women, we are told, is the only surviving play from a trilogy (Wikipedia says Tetralogy, including the Satyr play Amymone). It is the first play. Only one word of the second play remains (some bloke’s name, apparently), and only thirteen lines of the final play, which are read to us. In this first play, a group of women have sailed to Argos from Ägypt, to escape being forcibly married to the sons of Ägyptos, who are also their cousins. Of course, with the news filled with stories of ISIS, Boko Haram – forced “marriages” amounting precisely to rape – and the continuing flight of refugees from those countries, it isn’t much of a stretch to find contemporary resonances here. Which is what makes the rest of the play so surprising.

The second play of the trilogy apparently depicts the complete destruction of Argos by the Egyptians, who appear towards the end of The Suppliant Women, demanding the return of “their women” by the Greeks. This fact, which we are told in the opening moments of the play – a fact which Greek audiences would have known from the get go, as surely we know the ending of Hamlet – informs the entire progress of the play. With our 20:20 hindsight, we watch knowing that the Greek King, Pelagus, is in an impossible situation. The suppliants claim the protection of Zeus – which is probably more effective than making an appeal to the conscience of a male King in a slave-owning “democracy” wherein women cannot vote. But we still hear their pleas with our 21st century ears, and it seems that the ancient king behaves more nobly and humanely than our own dismal leadership. However, we also know that in doing so, he has sealed his city’s fate. But then, we also know that not doing so would have also damaged the city beyond measure (because you don’t fuck around with Zeus). So, what possible lesson can be learned here? What conclusion for our own times can possibly be discerned? There is part of me that would argue that this is a tension also present in the production; between Greig’s compassionate text and Gray’s dispassionate understanding of the Greeks’ original fatalism.

There are other fascinating aspects to the play, too. The woman’s understandable reluctance to marry their violent male cousins turns out to be a wider part of a strange sort of cult of virginity, apparently instituted by their father, Danaos – so when they finally meet their hosts, the Greek citizens, they essentially greet them with a sharp and pre-emptive refusal to marry a single one of them. Danaos – in a fascinating speech – entreats them all to behave mildly and courteously toward their hosts, but instead they stick to their abrasive guns (as is their right, of course).

So, yes. It’s a far more knotty and difficult play than I had been imagining. Certainly there’s no happy take-home here re: “be nice to refugees”. Instead, if The Suppliant Women has “a message” it’s pretty much “hope that no refugees ever turn up in the first place. If they do, you have to take them, and taking them ensures your destruction.” I can imagine certain alt.right politicians taking great comfort from this play. Little surprise, of course, since the alt.right pretty much models itself on Roman fascism, which took its roots from Greek civilisation. Perhaps the real contradiction of the play, then, is not about refugees at all, but in the women’s plea to be saved from “MALE VIOLENCE,” when what they’re really calling for is far superior military violence on the part of their saviours. Have the military strength necessary to uphold your highest principals, might be another uncomfortable (but indisputable) take-home message here. No surprise either, of course; the history of the century in which the play was written is the history of near non-stop military strikes and counter-strikes between the Mediterranean micro-states that have now been ludicrously configured by the Steve Bannons of this world as Orient and Occident.

Almost irrespective of all the above – and perhaps this is another stroke of Ramin Gray’s production’s genius – the performance itself feels somehow at once defiant and celebratory.

The production itself is fascinating. After what has recently felt like a complete capitulation by British Theatre to the Icke and Mitchell approach to The Greeks, Gray here creates a production which while also entirely contemporary, is also almost the exact opposite to those productions. Gone are the detailed naturalistic modern interiors and expensive-looking props and costumes. Here instead is a genius-simple breezeblock parquet floor (Lizze Clachan; top of her game) and colourful rehearsal-room (or Glastonbury) fatigues. Instead of Icke’s painstaking atheist excisions and rewritings into glassy/steely RP, Greig’s text instead sinuously wrangles the ancient Greek (Gods ‘n’ all) into a warm granite of modern British demotic.

Most of all, though, where Mitchell and Icke turn the plays of Aeschylus into modern dramatic theatre, Gray, along with composer John Browne, return to the text something like the ancient music that is thought to have originally accompanied these plays.

(Neither approach is *better*, btw. Both work beautifully. “Yay!” for More Than One Thing Working! Go, contrast!)

The composition of the performing corps is also interesting. As you may know, all but five of the cast are volunteers from the local community. Something like 30 young women, 15 young men, and a further 20 or so people playing the citizens of Argos. I mean, quite apart from anything else, it’s just brilliant to see choruses this size in anything. And, at the Exchange, they fill the stage completely. It vaguely strikes me that far, far more plays should be made like this. The approach also works because these are not mere supernumeraries – the chorus of suppliant women themselves constitute most of the playing time of the piece.

But, most important of all, they are not static. (Not that I mind static choruses.) But, no. Not here. Choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies has created a stunning kinetic sculpture of a thing here. The chorus of suppliant women have an almost endless drilled routine that ranges in reference from modern contemporary dance to Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album. Cleverly put together so that it can practically be danced by untrained volunteers, it still looks about as impressive as anything you’ll see on the theatre stage by way of movement. (And, most crucially for theatre “movement”, it doesn’t once look like it owes a single thing to the execrable visual daubings of Frantic Assembly. Please – if nothing else – let this be that end of that overlong dependency. It wasn’t even good to begin with, but it’s been fifteen fucking years now...)

The net result of all these elements colliding is remarkable. The production elements: the music, the choreography, the acting (I’ve hardly mentioned the main actors – they are very strong, clear, funny. Sympathetic-and-not-sympathetic at once... Really clever, understated performances), the design, the community/volunteer element... And all this in service of a strange, savage, incomplete, myterious play of uncertain purpose. Perhaps that’s the most exciting thing of all. Unlike so much of what we’re given on stage in Britain, which *hints quite heavily* at what the playwright and/or director might want us to think, here we have a piece of uncertainty for our deeply uncertain times. It’s a production which takes the risk of people drawing “the wrong conclusions”. Audiences could legitimately go away from this piece having had their far-right prejudices confirmed. The challenge it offers to a thinking left-wing audience is what do we do with this difficult piece of humanity’s ancient past?

1 comment:

Thom Dibdin said...

Brilliant stuff Andrew.
A fascinating insight to a fascinating piece of work.
When it opened in Edinburgh, it was David Greig's first play of his first season. It felt then like a brilliant offering to the gods of theatre and came with all those added strands of meaning.
So it is even more fascinating to read of it when it is removed from those influences.