Royal Exchange, Manchester – until 1 April 2017
With the sweet smell of incense wafting through the air, a chorus of thirty-five women take to the Royal Exchange’s stage to present David Greig’s new adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women. I use ‘new’ adaptation loosely – I mean that Greig has not stripped back and brought The Suppliant Women to a twentieth-century audience in a direct contemporary fashion. Working alongside director Ramon Gray, Greig has embraced the ritual and structure surrounding Ancient Greek performance and in doing so has set the wonderfully poetic language ablaze for a modern audience. We just need to take our seats and listen. Debating ideas of identity and asylum, it’s a story that resounds as deeply now, in our current migrant crisis, as it did over two thousand years ago.
The Suppliant Women is one of the world’s oldest plays and the only section in Aeschylus’s trilogy to have survived. Written around 463BC, The Suppliant Women tells the story of fifty young women who have fled their homeland, in a bid to escape forced marriage, in order to seek asylum in Greece.
The most striking aspect of this show is the chorus, which is made up of thirty-five girls aged between 16 and 26. Led by Chorus Leader Gemma May, the young women are at the very heart of the production – dressed in colourful batik and floral print, they chant, sing and create soundscapes alongside Ben Burton on Percussion and Callum Armstrong on the ancient Greek aulos. Ramin Gray’s direction is key here- managing to cultivate the raw passion and determination of the chorus alongside Sasha Milavic Davies’s compact but expressive choreography, results in an honest, vulnerable and fearless performance.
The Suppliant Women is certainly one of the most extraordinary theatrical events that I have ever seen. Although written over two millennia ago, the dramatic themes manage to strike a shrill chord with current world events. We are warned at the beginning when we are told that we will “find ourselves reflected in this strange and ancient mirror”. Thrilling, shocking and painfully good.