The Trojan Women

As part of the Women and War festival at Streatham Hill Theatre, I went to see a modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Adapted and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, it is set in a post-nuclear fallout in which a group of surviving women gather in a camp in the south of England. They include Hecuba, an MP, her daughters, Cassandra and Andromache, and assorted other women searching for normality in an increasingly uncertain world.

The women come into conflict with an ambassador and the military, who want to send them away, but they are determined to assert their independence. This clever adaptation is short but memorable, looking at how people might react in the face of crisis and how they might pull together. There are strong performances from all involved, particularly Elizabeth McNally as Hecuba, who struggles to hold on to power and maintain her dignity.

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Alcestis

Every year, students at King’s College London perform a Greek play in the original language. This tradition has been going for several years and the plays always attract a big crowd. This year’s play, performed at the Greenwood Theatre, was Euripides’ Alcestis.

I arrived early for the pre-performance talk from Professor Edith Hall, which was an engaging and fascinating introduction to the play. Alcestis broke with tradition when it was first performed, being very different from the straight comedies usually delivered after the tragedies at the Greek theatre festival.

The play concerns King Admetus, who is due to die but who is able to carry on living so long as someone else agrees to die in his place. Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, agrees to die instead of him, and the play begins on the day of her death, with Admetus and the couple’s children displaying profound grief. In the midst of their mourning, Hercules turns up, and when he finds out what has happened he vows to go to the Underworld and bring Alcestis back.

Directed by Saara Salem, this was an interesting production which was easy to follow thanks to the English surtitles (no, in case you were wondering, I don’t know Ancient Greek). I was shocked at Admetus’ behaviour, while recalling that the play was written in a very different time: he is reluctant to tell Hercules that his wife is dead, because the Greek laws of hospitality require him to offer shelter. The piece was often very funny, and completely engaging.

Alcestis was a fascinating work and I particularly liked the adjusted ending to the production: it was very well staged and seemed incredibly fitting to a modern audience! The production was great fun and I would definitely return to see another Greek play at King’s next year.

Medea

Even though I’ve only just seen a production of Medea, I really wanted to see the Gate Theatre’s production, and I’m so glad I did. This production is different – it tells the story from the perspective of the children. First premiered in Australia, it was written by Kate Mulvany and directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, whose idea it was.

The play is set entirely in the boys’ bedroom, a dinosaur-wallpapered space with glow-in-the-dark stars and toys strewn all over the place. The audience sit on either side, and feel fully immersed in what is going on. Most of the time, the boys are alone, with occasional appearances from their mother.

The boys play, fight, jump about, and wait for their parents’ argument to finish. We – the audience – are familiar with the story of Medea – we know how this is going to end. The boys don’t, though. They wonder whether their parents are going to make up. They hope they will stop fighting soon, so that they can leave their bedroom. The eldest, Leon, dreams of winning his father’s praise in the arena while the youngest, Jasper, is excited at the thought of moving into “Dad’s friend’s” house, with its huge swimming pool.

To them, everything is a game. When they fight, they shoot guns at one another, but the guns have foam bullets. When they play dead, they see it as a joke. Leon retells the story of how Medea and Jason met, but we don’t know if this is the truth, or if this is a legend perhaps told to the children by their parents.

The two young boys playing the brothers are utterly fantastic. Two pairs alternate the roles, and at the performance I saw, Keir Edkins-O’Brien (Leon) and Bobby Smalldridge (Jasper) took on the roles. They were guileless and innocent, smart yet tragically unsuspecting. As Medea, Emma Beattie is also superb, conveying her complete love for her children even while she plans to kill them.

This is one of the most powerful and affecting plays I have seen all year. I’m so glad I made the effort to go – superb.

Medea

I finally completed my Almeida Greeks trilogy when I saw Rupert Goold’s new production of Medea. Like the two previous plays in the season, it’s a fairly radical new version of Euripides’ classic; a loose adaptation rather than a close interpretation. Novelist Rachel Cusk has set her version in the modern day: Medea, played with firm intensity by Kate Fleetwood, is a writer devastated by her husband’s betrayal. As he plans a future with his new, younger lover, she is left to look after their two young children alone, forced to move out of their home and facing criticism on all sides.

At its heart, the play is about one woman’s suffering, and Cusk does a good job of allowing us to empathise with Medea. The play opens with her in the middle of the stage, standing silently, hair over her face, as her parents, sitting on either side of her, comment harshly on events and seem to suggest that Medea is in some way responsible. In some respects it has a distinctly feminist slant, as Cusk suggests that men leave their women to bring up the children and run off when they get bored, but the women don’t get off lightly either, with the chorus of yummy mummies repulsive in their smug judgement of Medea.

I was particularly impressed with the child actors, who were painfully believable in their behaviour: the youngest railing against the injustice of having to leave his big house, declaring “I hate you!” to his mother; the eldest, more aware of his mother’s feelings, trying to quench his little brother’s moaning and declaring support for his mum.

The play did seem to lose its way during the last twenty minutes or so, with a confusing explanation from a dual-natured Messenger as to what happened next. However, the final revelation was, to me, entirely unexpected yet totally in keeping with what had gone before.

While far from perfect, this play got me thinking about the roles of men and women – society’s pressures on women in particular – as well as the profound effect emotional upheaval has on children. I’m glad I completed my Greek trilogy.

Hecuba

Marina Carr’s new version of Hecuba, the Homeric tale first dramatised by Euripides, is playing at Stratford’s Swan Theatre, a powerful, stripped-back production of the story set after the bloody end of the Trojan wars. Derbhle Crotty stars as the title character, a strong and dignified woman shaped by suffering but refusing to succumb to it. She is superb in the role, entirely compelling, and Ray Fearon matches her as Agamemnon, the king responsible for her downfall. The two have a definite chemistry, and the play shines most notably when the pair are on stage together.

Amy McAllister is very good as Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, but for me the most fascinating character is Nadia Albina’s Cassandra. Her capacity for prophecy has turned her into an almost sociopathic figure, shrugging her shoulders at suffering and displaying a grim satisfaction when one of her disturbing prophecies comes true.

Erica Whyman’s direction and Soutra Gilmour’s set place the storytelling at the front of the story, allowing Carr’s language to speak for itself. The text is certainly rich and beautiful, but I did become rather irritated by the increasing repetition of “he said”, “she said”: having characters speak others’ lines as if retelling the story is novel at first, but quickly becomes annoying. Atrocities are described, not seen: no fake blood in this production, but it is chilling for all that.

I am not familiar with Euripides’ original play, so I can’t compare the two versions. Nevertheless, I did enjoy this eloquent, thoughtful production.

Bakkhai

The second production in the Almeida Theatre’s Greek season sees Euripides’ Bakkhai performed in a new version by Anne Carson, directed by James Macdonald. With a cast of three plus a chorus, it aims to replicate the original structure of the drama, against a plain but effective, unobtrusively modern backdrop.

Ben Wishaw stars as Dionysus, the demigod who objects when he feels the citizens of Thebes are not worshipping him enough. With malignant glee he plans the downfall of the uptight Pentheus, the besuited leader of the city. Tricking him with a plan to infiltrate Dionysus’ female worshippers, who have fled to the hills beyond Thebes, he lures him to his death.

Wishaw is superb, commanding the stage as Dionysus and appealing to the audience with charisma and a winning manner. Carvel is also excellent as Pentheus, an outwardly affable politician whose authoritarian stance leads to a distrust of the reckless abandon Dionysus stands for.

Kevin Harvey is an actor I hadn’t come across before, but I was impressed with his performances in a number of very different roles. In fact, all of the actors play varied roles in this piece, and I got the impression that Wishaw, rather than simply playing a number of different roles, was playing Dionysus playing different roles. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but it gave his character an omniscient quality, and added another dimension to the play. For instance, there was a moment when Cadmus was trying to persuade Pentheus that he should be pragmatic about Dionysus and say that he believes in him even if he doesn’t, for the sake of keeping the peace. And Wishaw’s Tiresias, standing to one side, seemed to be listening rather thoughtfully, as if he was actually Dionysus all along and noticing that Cadmus’ belief in him wasn’t quite as sincere as he had thought.

The chorus are a memorable part of this production: they are obviously talented and well rehearsed, and are an extremely strong ensemble. However, I thought that they had too much stage time, which slowed down the action somewhat, and their presence did get a little repetitive after a while. In general, though, I thought that this was an incredibly strong play and a worthy successor to the Oresteia.

Hippolytos

The tunnel entrance at the Victoria & Albert Museum is one of the more unusual spaces in which I have seen theatre performed. The section of tunnel branching off the main subway from South Kensington and leading into the Museum has been transformed into the Colepit Theatre, hosting the first production from Antic Face, which is Euripides’ Hippolytos.

And an excellent debut it is. Performed by only four actors, the play tells the story of Hippolytos, son of Theseus, who rejects the goddess of love Aphrodite in favour of the chaste huntress Artemis. An angered Aphrodite puts a spell on Theseus’ wife Phaedra to ensure she falls in love with Hippolytos, leading to a chain of events resulting in tragedy for all concerned.

The performances were superb, with David Shields an excellent Hippolytos and Emma Amos and Martin McGlade providing strong support. I particularly liked Emma Hall, who exuded confidence and charm as Aphrodite and also managed to perform as a convincing Phaedra and Artemis. All the actors took on minor bit-part roles as well as their chief ones: it was hard to take in that there were only four of them.

Greek drama can sometimes feel remote, but the intimacy of this production, directed by Charlie Parham, and the power of the performances meant that the play was genuinely affecting. An excellent first production from Antic Face.