The Suppliant Women
Young Vic, 21st November 2017
Before I get started let us just remind ourselves what a marvellous place the Young Vic is. I don’t just mean the quality and quantity of its productions, though heaven knows under the artistic stewardship of David Lan, this has risen to great heights. Not everything works but it is never for lack of trying. Kwame Kwei-Armah has big shoes to fill, though by all accounts he is well capable of doing so, even if the SO and I weren’t entirely persuaded by his latest directorial outing, The Lady From The Sea at the Donmar.
No it is the “feel” of the place that is the thing and the joy of the experience. It is always busy, it seems to thrive on inclusivity and diversity, though what would I know as a middle-aged, white, straight, rich, liberal, hand-wringing bloke, and everyone involved with the theatre is always so polite, welcoming and jolly. I am a right pain in the arse with my seating demands, but the front of house never fails to calmly sort things out, as they did for this performance. So thank you very much Young Vic.
Now I had been looking forward to this production of the from the Actors Touring Company based on the reviews from the run at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. (I see the Lyceum has a new version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and David Greig’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors coming up next year – lucky folk). Your man Aeschylus wrote this 2500 years ago, (it was first performed in 463 BCE), but the issues it examines are just as relevant today. How should we treat refugees, the suppliants of the title? What rights do people have to return to their ancestral homelands? Where do we belong? How should refugees be treated in their new home and how should they in turn behave? Why do we have such a deep fear of the other? How can women be forced into marriage? How do women escape sexual violence? How powerful can women’s voices be when they come together?
It is all in there. David Greig, as in all modern adaptions, has to take a direct line translation, here by Ian Ruffell, and make it clear to today’s audience. The wonder is that it apparently remains pretty true to the original. I got the text. It is a beautiful read. The rhythms jump off the page. The chorus here is, unusually for a Greek play, the protagonist and has a lot to say, literally and metaphorically. Director Ramin Gray, together with composer John Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies, takes this structure and conjure up an astonishing feat, and feast, of movement and verse. Percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, who has conjured up a real, live double Aulos (the contemporary Greek pipe), are outstanding.
Really. If you want to see the best “musical” in London then come here. Except that it is now over (oops sorry) and it isn’t the best musical in London, not whilst Follies is still on. Oh and I haven’t seen any other current musicals which I guess makes me a somewhat unreliable witness. BTW I note that if you are a) available and b) a party of one, or two at most, and c) enterprising there are normally returns on most days if you still haven’t seen Follies
The whole spectacle of this Supplicant Women is made even more remarkable by the fierce performances of the non-professional chorus of young women playing the supplicants drawn from the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. It is not just their verse, their singing and their dance and movement which impresses, but their complete commitment to the story which impresses. All after just a couple of months of rehearsal. Staggering. At the end you could see the pride in the performance of these women felt by the local lads ,who had a smaller involvement as the chorus of Egyptians come back to claim their would be brides, and the more mature amateurs who made up the Athenian citizens who tentatively welcome the supplicants.
Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgos, who agonises before persuading his people to accept the Women and Omar Ebrahim, who switches from Danaos, the “father” of the Women to the brutal Egyptian Herald, in the blink of an eye, as well as acting as our MC, are both excellent. However Gemma May, as the Chorus leader, stood out for me, not just for the clarity with which she delivered the lines specifically carved out for her, but the way she, well er, led the Chorus.
Fidelity to the Greek original includes a libation from an academic, whose name to my shame I have forgotten, which explained, as was the custom, who funded the performances, and a dedication to Bacchus, which involved a mediocre (I hope) bottle of red being poured on to the suitably practical breeze block flooring of Lizzie’s Clachan’s elegant set.
We have Aeschylus to thank for the concept of tragedy, and for the introduction of more than one character alongside the chorus. Only seven of his plays remain including the three that make up the extraordinary Oresteia, which should be seen by everyone at least once. The other two plays which make up the Danaids trilogy alongside The Suppliants are lost. In the Persians he actually had the temerity to warn his fellow citizens about gloating too much over their victories. In fact he fought against the Persians and his military exploits brought him more fame than his playwriting, despite the fact he ruled supreme in the Dionysia through the 470s and 460s BCE. One final lesson we can learn from Aeschylus: don’t stand directly under an eagle in case it drops a tortoise on your head. Unlikely I grant you but this apparently is how he met his end.
So there you have it. All the big questions, one way and another, were covered off by Aeschylus and his mates, Sophocles and Euripides, whilst the best we Brits could manage at the time were a lot of beakers, pointlessly shifting huge lumps of stone to catch the sun one day a year and pining for a decent hairdresser. To be fair, in all these Greek dramas, you do have to get your head around the intervention of the gods. Specifically in the Suppliant Women the somewhat erratic Zeus. For he it was who caused the women to end up being born in Egypt after he got the hots for a cow lady, Io, from whom the Suppliants were descended. And it is to Zeus they turn to help them when they cross the Med. If it was me I might be a little wary of appealing to the very bloke who indirectly got me into this predicament. Mind you that’s the problem with these top gods, especially the monotheistic ones. Simultaneously good cop, bad cop, vengeful then loving, all to keep us on our toes.
I am guessing that this version of the Suppliant Women will engage further communities after having visited Bern in Switzerland. Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Newcastle, Manchester< Hong Kong, as well as London. If so please seek it out. It is about as perfect a testament to the power of theatre, then (Ancient Greece) as now., and a paean to the collective power of women. It is also the first time the word “democracy” ever appeared in writing, albeit in the form of an arch pun from the Chorus. Precious stuff.