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FringeReview UK 2017

The Suppliant Women

Young Vic with the Actors Touring Company and Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Dance and Movement Theatre, Drama, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Young Vic


Low Down

Director Ramin Gray integrates David Greig’s closely faithful version with John Browne’s music performed by Callum Armstrong’s aulos (two pipes played simultaneously, piercingly) and Ben Burton’s percussion. Breezeblocks constitute Lizzie Clachan’s slight thrust stage with prosc-arch. Charles Balfour’s lighting here is unobtrusive – till when really needed, fitly magical. Sasha Milavic Davies’ choreography leaps through the ensemble like a wave.


In one of the most radical productions ever mounted of Aeschylus indeed any Greek tragedy we’re literally taken to its roots: as in Greece, a community chorus of fifty, twenty-one of them the suppliant women of the play’s title, and a prefatory address by Omar Ebrahim who takes two roles, as well as assistant director Alice Malin from the Actors Touring Company detailing the financial percentages from taxpayer and audience member. The last forty pence can be contributed by purchasing wine at the bar.


Then on the light grey breezeblocks that constitute Lizzie Clachan’s slight thrust stage with prosc-arch, a bottle of red is poured to propitiate Dionysius. Charles Balfour’s lighting here is unobtrusive – till when really needed, fitly magical.


We’re reminded that this is the first of an otherwise lost trilogy (or tetralogy with a satyr-play), all but for lines from the final play spoken by Aphrodite recovered in the eleventh century, voiced here by Ebrahim. They underscore how this play ends too, with Aphrodite’s prophesied wrath against those who refuse sexual union. We’re given strong hints this won’t end as well as we hope by the end of what’s presented here.


Again, we’re reminded of how fragmentary even the complete single play is, and this act grounds it in the phantom missing limbs of those other works, all performed on a single day like the Oresteia. Nothing like this act of completion and immersion has been to my knowledge attempted anywhere. And certainly not at this artistic pitch.


With that libation it ceases to emanate any community vibes and explodes as a vector of women bearing cotton-hung branches, the traditional supplication for asylum process across. Despite their father King Danaos (Ebrahim) counselling quiet decorum as strangers in a suspicious country, enacting everything we know of refugees, the words don’t suggest they heed him, and certainly this production pulsates with the women’s fears and exhortations. The relevance of those fleeing Syria – its in the original – from north Africa to Greece doesn’t need underlining. Save that in the week this opened twenty-six young women were found drowned, possibly after being trafficked.


Like the original, it’s a music-drama, director Ramin Gray integrating David Greig’s closely faithful version with John Browne’s music performed by Callum Armstrong’s aulos (two pipes played simultaneously, piercingly) and Ben Burton’s percussion. The previous nearest equivalent to authenticity was Carl Orff’s 1968 setting of Prometheus, in the original Greek dominated rightly by percussion. Armstrong’s worked with Harrison Birtwistle amongst others, someone who’s explored Greek tragedy in his own Orpheus. Browne’s bears some kinship to Birtwistle’s smaller music theatre pieces.


It’s not just these two superb players rightly cast as two of the five central protagonists who make the music: the clarity, memorability and pungency of this this two-month-trained chorus is unforgettable, swaying into Browne’s crystalline evocation of middle-eastern music with a western melodic edge. Nearly everything is rhythmically sung or spoken which extends to the pure speaking roles – Ebrahim and Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos – with only small breaks from its strict measure. It works thrillingly. And despite the inevitable occlusion of words in singing the chorus’ diction is extraordinary.


It’s still near to a total music theatre, or ritual, with Sasha Milavic Davies’ choreography leaping through the ensemble like a wave. Davies employs both an imploring tread, a snaking sweep of dancers and sudden breaks like pulsing star clusters exploding or imploding, red giants or white dwarfs. At one point the women cower in two small groups in darkness as danger approaches.


Each community where this production’s toured since its Edinburgh premiere last year has supplied the chorus. Here it’s from Southwark, Lambeth, and in this area. They wear everyday-to-smart summer wear. The ensemble’s clarity you take for granted as professional.


The arc of twenty-two woman led by the ardent, commanding Gemma May would seem static, but apart from exhortative words from the father of these fifty young women fleeing the unwanted advances of their fifty male cousins, there’s the pin-striped king to contend with. They confess their darkened faces, foreign, but Greek-descended from Io, the maid turned cow by Juno out of sexual jealousy and goaded by a gadfly through several continents till Zeus rescued healed and impregnated her. Greek by origin they beg sanctuary. ‘If war-battered refugees deserve protection, don’t we women?’ Batterham’s not the old wise man the text suggests, but rightly shudders at the prospect of displeasing a powerful neighbour, uncle of these women, and considers: ‘Act or not act … If we help we invite trouble. If we don’t, we bring shame.’ His appealing overwhelming to great events is matched by an inner core that goes along with regal stiffness.


The vicissitudes of hope, far and then terror as the pursuing ship arrives reminds us how much is packed in to a drama of thirty-odd pages in this version: at the end too, there’s another twist. But it’s inscribed too. The long tale of Io’s troubles, twice recounted in different ways, is render in a physical avatar as the women draw in charcoal poured out the very shape of Io to protect the, huddling within, and then a small calf given birth to, though this too suggest Aries, God of War and just the kind of man they’re avoiding.


Black shawls used to threaten hanging till the people of Argos unanimously vote them sanctuary is just one of the vivid moves illustrating a text which could appear ritualistically obtuse, occasionally a bit repetitive, no matter how beautifully Greig translates it. It’s not Aeschylus’ fault either: famed for polymathic theatrical abilities, he realized a text for total immersion and when it gets it as here, it feels right.


Ebrahim both as avuncular appeaser and cajoler, and briefly as the Egyptian Herald, shines: he’s after all an uneasy anchor in an otherwise female world painfully applying to male succour as another world of men pursues. Seven men of Argos appear to protect and later incarnate with torches as those pursuing brothers in front of the aisle just as it’s grown dark: the women at this point shelter their hands over small lamps It’s an unforgettable agon of flamen and lumen, unbridled dangerous fire versus the small flickering lamps in near total darkness.


The conclusion, a provisional kingly rescue then confrontation of these immigrants by townsfolk themselves pressing the claims of Aphrodite produce one of the most startling counterpoints: The ritual shouts of the women piercing the speeches of citizens of Argos. Their numbers bring the total community participants to fifty: the number used in ancient Greece. Now, finally, it’s been mounted here – with all the consummate power of the rest of the production.


We’re essentially ending on a cliff-hanger, waiting for the second and third plays, not as in any serial, since there’s a unity and warning here. But in this outstanding production, you’re made to feel that aching amputation of time, and recall that one fragment of the third play: everything to resurrect this astonishing vision has been invoked.