The Suppliant Women: a drama for our time

Theatre is one of our last few civic spaces, a place of safety where people can meet to share and encounter challenging ideas in an atmosphere of civil understanding.  So says David Greig and he put his theory to practice with bold effect in his opening production at The Lyceum Theatre.

The Suppliant Women, Greig’s retelling of an ancient Greek play, gets the Lyceum’s new artistic director off to a flying start. Four and five star reviews applaud the imaginative touches – the use of music, scripting, staging – and, most strikingly, the casting of Edinburgh volunteers to play the chorus of 30 young women washed up on the shores of Argos, asylum seekers throwing themselves at the kindness of strangers

Two and a half thousand years old, the tale first written by Aeschylus could hardly be more topical.  Themes of democracy, citizenship, rights of women (and wrongs of men) weave through the rhythmic text, in words sung and spoken.  As Britain teeters on the edge of a divisive Brexit, feeding fears of migrants and foreigners, Greig’s script evokes the human plight of refugees – and the dilemma of the host country.

If we help, we invite trouble. If we don’t, we invite shame.

While today’s Aleppo is reduced to rubble, there is poignant, poetic irony in the fact that Syria was also named in the opening lines of the original play written in 423 BC – Greig emphasises in a Guardian interview that he did not have to insert it.  And, though the latest Trump news adds a very present dimension to the story of young women fleeing rapacious men, the focus of the Suppliant Women fixes firmly on the timelessness of predatory oppression and the abiding hope of human compassion.  Directed by Ramin Gray, with an original music score by John Browne, the combination is haunting and compelling.

Yet, for all that, some dramatic impact of this powerful play is lost in the theatrical inventiveness of the production.  There is an exuberant, uninhibited energy in the young chorus reminiscent of the best High School performances.  Cleverly choreographed, skilfully trained, the chorus IS the protagonist and the fact that the players are volunteers rather than professionals serves to demonstrate messages of democracy, community and the historical accuracy of the play.

Chorus lines are most often spoken in unison, dialogue contained in tightly measured rhythm, which at times slows the pace.  The three professional actors – Gemma May as chorus leader, Omar Ebrahim as the maidens’ father Danaus, and Oscar Batterham as young King Pelasgus – are never seen and rarely heard in isolation from the chorus.

All that is bold but perhaps it also weakens the plot and reduces tension. Strong individual performances might have been stronger with just a little prolonging of uncertainty, a more searching spotlight on inner anxiety.  The King’s dilemma, after all, seems to be resolved surprisingly quickly. Pelasgus chooses righteousness by offering sanctuary to the maidens – rather than risk the wrath of Zeus by abandoning them – and (off stage) his people vote unanimously to support his decision.

Anthem to a feminist future

Even so, the concept of theatre as sanctuary, debating chamber and civic centre, is imaginatively and humorously evident from the start.  The play opens, as in Ancient Greece, with a libation to Dionysius, so different local dignitaries are invited each night to pour a bottle of red wine across the stage.  Earlier reviews mention Willie Rennie, Scottish LibDem leader, and Deidre Brock, SNP MP for Edinburgh Northern and Leith.  For us it’s Joanne Mowatt, Tory Councillor for Edinburgh Central, who delivers the nicely scripted introduction thanking sponsors and sprinkling the wine (disarmingly she has to be reminded to open the bottle first), which sends a whiff of alcohol into the front stalls.

And it ends with rapturous applause for the young players who receive it with shining faces having just sung a wholehearted anthem to a feminist future. There is humanity and hope in the air, and goodness knows we need plenty more of that.

The Suppliant Women, a co-production with the Actors Touring Company, ends in Edinburgh on 15 October and then tours to Belfast and Newcastle where the chorus will be played by volunteers from their local communities.

Image: Stephen Cummiskey

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