Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh: Sat 1 – Sat 15 Oct 2016
Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Poetic, political and dramatic, David Greig’s new version of The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus is a striking statement of intent.
For the first large-scale in-house production of his time in charge at the Lyceum, Greig has gone right back to the roots of Western drama with this co-production with the Actors Touring Company – with whom he created The Events in 2015. The play, the first in a trilogy (the other parts are now lost), tells of the 50 daughters of Danaus, who have fled Egypt to escape forced marriage to their cousins, the sons of Aegyptos. Arriving in Greece, they claim asylum from the city of Argos.
The entire production is dominated by the chorus of the daughters of Danaus. There are not quite 50 of them, but they still number nearly 40, and are made up of performers from the local community. They are on stage throughout the play, which runs straight through without an interval.
Superbly drilled by choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies and vocal leader Stephen Deazley, the words of Greig’s poetic translation are crystal clear and their movement is breathtaking. John Browne’s music, featuring an otherworldly pipe called the aulos, combines ancient and modern beautifully.
To say that their leader, the excellent Gemma May, appears merely to be one of the chorus may seem to denigrate her professionalism or to appear patronising to the non-professional performers, but it is a testament to the meshing of the company and the community that is reflected in the pre-performance ‘libation’ that pays homage to those who support the production, including the paying public.
With the chorus always appearing so vibrant and thoroughly alive, there is an odd disconnect between them and the other actors at times. Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos is presented as a thoroughly modern, besuited figure.
Thoroughly at home with the rhythms of his speeches, Batterham is convincing and interacts smoothly with the chorus, but at times the modern parallels (such as the questions of ‘getting involved in other people’s wars’) are pushed too far. There is no need for the character to be so resolutely Blairite; the contemporary resonance of the play is all too obvious and could be subtler.
Oscar Batterham and chorus. Photo Stephen Cummiskey
A different problem arises with Omar Ebrahim, whose expansive portrayals of Danaus and the Egyptian herald are impressive in themselves but seem to play against the chorus rather than with them.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the other elements of the play pale into insignificance beside the female chorus. The other ensembles – the men who play the Egyptian sailors and the soldiers of Argos, the wise women of Argos – are always going to look a little less impressive in comparison.
Director Ramin Gray makes good use of Lizzie Clachan’s imposing sloped slab of a set, and huge visual impact is maintained throughout the production.
It is not necessary to know anything about the rest of Aeschylus’s (long lost) trilogy, or about the eventual fate of the Danaids in Greek mythology, to realise that any hope raised here has to be of a transient and troubling kind. Here is a play that comes from when drama was invented and that contains one of the first recorded mentions of the word ‘democracy’. 2 500 years later, the questions raised – about patriarchy, democracy, warfare, refugees and the fear of anything that seems ‘other’ – are frighteningly current, and seemingly no nearer any resolution.
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Saturday 1 – Saturday 15 October 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm; Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.00 pm
Tickets and details: http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-suppliant-women
Oscar Batterham and the choruses. Photo Stephen Cummiskey