Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Trojan Women - Theatre Review

What: The Trojan Women
When: 22 - 23 November 2019
Where: Chapel Off Chapel
Written by: Euripides
Directed by: Emma Sproule
Musical direction by: Sheridan Killingback
Performed by: James Dale, Emma Fawcett, Mitch McDonough, Josiah Moa, Roisin O'Neill, Joshua Quinn, Madeline Rintoul, Emma Rogers, Hannah Rule, Mitchell Sholer, Jon Simpson, Tahlia Summer, Jett Thomas, Melanie Thomas, Kate Tomkins, Liam Tyssen, and Eli Williams
Set design by: Sally Curry
Costume design and dramaturgy by: Melanie Thomas
Sound design by: Brad de La Rue and Sheridan Killingback
Stage managed by: Gabrielle Rando
Madeline Rintoul, Tahlia Summer, Hannah Rule, Emma Fawcett
There is a new translator of classical texts on the world stage (Emily Wilson) and Dionysus theatre have brought her understanding of Euripides words in The Trojan Women back to the stages of Melbourne after an initial award winning production in 2018. Sadly, the show only appeared at Chapel Off Chapel for 2 nights but I am sure those who caught it were as impressed as I was.

Euripides was a 5th century BC Athenian playwright. In 415 BC his play The Trojan Woman was produced as part of the annual Dionysian Festival as part of a trilogy, for which he won 2nd place. None of the works of the playwright who came first that year have survived.

The role of playwrights back in those time was to take classic myths and give them a contemporary morality. Euripides took the 400 year old tale of the battle of Troy and juxtaposed it against the tragedies of modern warfare.

The play begins with end of the war Homer told us about in The Illiad and before The Odyssey. The city of Troy is burning, the men have all been killed and the women have been allotted amongst the winners as slaves and concubines. Euripedes, in writing this play, was reacting to the reality of exactly this being done by the Athenians on the island of Milos (where the Venus di Milo was found) the year before.

The Pelopannesian Wars between Sparta and Athens had been going for 15 years so far, and after an uneasy peace lasting around 6 years, all hell was about to break loose. The Athenian army were being forced to re-enter the conflagration by their allies. As an interesting aside - when Sparta eventually won in 404 and took over Athens they were urged by their allies to commit the same atrocities and they refused...

Sproule (director) has honoured this tradition of contemporaneity by bringing the performance foward to Hollywood in the 1920s. The actors play out Hecuba's (Fawcett) pleading and laments on a sound stage where a Greek movie is being made. The chorus consist of 3 women (O'Neill, Rintoul, and Rule) who sing their narrative to a jazz swing beat with flawless harmonies which had me thinking of groups such as the Andrews Sisters. Kudos to Killingback (MD) for such fantastic music!

Bringing the play into the 1920s allows for a beautiful aesthetic, and costume designer Melanie Thomas really has created a stuning collection of vintage dresses and classic suits for the men. I also have to really dip my hat to Hecuba's dresss. Somehow it really spans the two periods, from the ancient toga to the satin arte nouveau seamlessly (pun intended), embodying Hecuba's regalness and allowing us to see her as an agent in both times.

This is fortuitous because for the rest, there is a real disconnect between the set and costumes. Not enough work has been done to establish the sound stage and I found myself in a degree of cognitive dissonance the whole way through. I won't even talk about Cassandra's (Summer) candelabra...

Choosing Wilson's translation of this play was the genesis of Sproule's idea. Wilson is known for creating translations which are forthright in their text which makes them accessible, and also, she attempts to correct cultural blindspots of the past which includes bringing the female voice into interpretations and eschewing cultural artifacts lurking in translations from the past which have caused language to be watered down to maintain patriarchal definitions of good and evil, or to be overdramatised to ameliorate the ego of the academic perhaps...?

In particular, Sproule wanted to reference the current ripples which have emerged from the #metoo movement and the revelations which have come out of Hollywood about sexism, abuse and assault. This is completely in line with the intentions of the work of the classic Greeks, but for it to really work it needed to be brought all the way forward. I understand wanting to engage in the fantasy fuelled beauty and freedom of that time but it was 100 years ago now, and if you want to make a contemporary statement you don't do it by placing it in the ancient past. It is too hard to make the connections.

According to the program, the analogy was to the abuses which have been revealed about movie stars of that era and the atrocities of the casting couch as it was back then where it all started. There is some sense of that with the 'off camera' activity between the men and the women but it is too far in the back ground. Sproule's ideas are strong but she hasn't quite managed to blend the two (three?) worlds. The main play is still in Athens and it is just the costumes which are wrong. I will say there is a lot of potential if she chooses to explore it further and take some risks. It would help if there were less studio executives and more fellow actors and crew with equipment.

Fawcett was a magnificent Hecuba, with all the regalness of a Queen and all of the pain of a mother and grandmother. Most of the rest of the principals suffered from overacting but this is perhaps because of their lack of knowledge. Euripides was , in effect, the forerunner of realism and he was all about presenting the high and lofty as ordinary people. His writing was the first to focus on the interior which, a millenium later, became the province of Shakespeare. As such, melodrama is not the way to go when presenting his work. Playing a Euripides play the same way you would present an Aeschylus play isn't right because Euripides was an innovator.

Perhaps my major disappointment though, was the emotional arc of Hecuba was never realised and that is the whole point of the play. There are major notes which have to be hit - death of Paris and Hector, Cassandra being sent to be a concubine, Andromache (Tomkins), and her grandson Astyanax (Williams) being sentenced to death. All of these have to be hit one upon the other without pause to work up her hatred for Helen (Rogers) so that the tension in her attack in the trial with Menelaus (Sholer) hits home and we get the catharsis of running into the flames. This allows us to really feel the defeat just as Hecuba is defeated in even this tiny act of defiance.

Overall, this production of The Trojan Women is an enjoyable hour + with heaps of creative potential. It just misses the mark of putting it all together into an integrated whole. It is not enough to just put ideas next to each other. They need to be blended and merged and there has to be seepage for it to work. Sproule is almost there but needs to focus less on creating pretty pictures and more on telling the story she wants to tell. A lot of deeper dramaturgy is needed when you want to make work this meaningful. I think Melanie Thomas has really let her down in this regard despite the magnificant costumes.

I really want to thank Sproule for bringing Wilson's translation to my attention though. It is really wonderful and makes certain aspects of The Trojan Women feel current and insightful. It has a great resonance with the feminist movement in our time. Here is a classic I wouldn't mind seeing on stage regularly. I think, until I saw this production, I never truly appreciated how much the choice of translation matters...

3.5 Stars

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