Fifty women arrive by boat on Greek shores seeking asylum in Greece. They have no idea if they will find a welcome in this strange land but they would rather live in exile here than face an intolerable forced marriage in their homeland. How this storyline from one of the earliest plays ever written resonates with scenes from our world today!
First performed 2500 years ago, Aeschylus’ play The Suppliant Women has been rewritten for modern audiences by David Greig in an accessible and engaging language, without forsaking original aspects of the Greek Theatre tradition. The play opens with a libation to the gods – a whole bottle of wine is poured along the front of the stage to the audible sound of muted groans form the audience! – and there’s an ever-present chorus of women on stage. The haunting, achingly beautiful accompanying music is played on models of original ancient instruments.
As in ancient times, the three main actors are working with a chorus of local people, of volunteers -which carries an inherent risk. The Chorus of young women are wonderful throughout however. They’ve worked long and hard, that much is apparent, to deliver the lines in unison in a rhythmic, expressive way. It’s a big ask but it works. It’s actually in the spoken dialogue between the characters that the enforced rhythm sometimes inhibits the natural flow of the speech (it’s a tricky balance that rappers and performance poets of our day have nailed).
There’s a sense of the ancient blending with the contemporary as ageless themes of vulnerability and threat, courage and community, civic duty and fear are explored. There are some great lines that speak across time about how to behave in a foreign land, ‘how to act so locals like us’. The dilemma that the king finds himself in about how to best deal with these refugees rings true in our time. He never asked for this problem to be washed up on his shores. And as a vote is taken to determine the fate of these women, they ask ‘How does it work, this thing called democracy?’, causing a ripple of amusement.
Unfortunately, the performance is let down by the entrance of the city dwellers. At the climactic moment of the drama, where the women discover that they have not escaped the expectations of their gender at all, the flow is interrupted by an underprepared performance that is difficult to hear and leaves the play that started so strongly feeling disappointingly flat.