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Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Women of Troy at the National Theatre

Director Katie Mitchell returns to the National Theatre with a modern adaptation of Euripides’ Women of Troy. 2,400 years on, the play is still one of the most potent reminders of the pain endured by those who have no choice about how war affects their lives. Troy has fallen to the Greeks. Husbandless and fatherless, the women await their humiliating fate inside a warehouse on the Trojan docks, their time spent on purposeless activity- smoking, doing their make-up and waltzing to a song that occasionally plays from an old radio.

Nearly five years since the invasion of Iraq, the British troops now gradually withdrawing, Mitchell chooses an apt time to remind us of the cruel reality of war for the disempowered and voiceless. The fourth wall between the stage and audience episodically becomes an imaginary large door, opening slowly to let the suffering chorus speak to the world outside. It is a clever symbol of the attitude of those who watch war from afar: shocked for a second, but quickly forgetting. The costumes used- dark and Victorian, like from an old film- captures that uncomfortable truth war’s spectators feel: that the torment of the victims is alien, even fictional.

Mitchell encapsulates Euripides’ pessimism about war brilliantly. The dim lighting and metallic interior in the wide-framed Lytteltton Theatre accentuate the emptiness and hopelessness of the women’s situation. Helen, who is blamed for Troy’s downfall because of her promiscuity with the Greeks, is caged above the women. All the doors in the warehouse are locked. And when the generals come to take Andromache’s baby, she wanders round the room trying to open all the doors, pathetically whimpering, the actress Anastasia Hille effectively demonstrating the powerlessness of the women and the predictability of their fate.

In representing how distant war’s victims are from our everyday lives, the director could have thwarted any connection between the women and the audience, thereby strangling any sympathy we might have felt for the characters. This is not so; there are some extremely engrossing and poignant moments. In particular, Sinead Matthew’s Cassandra runs around the stage upon receiving news that she will be Agamemnon’s wife, burning her bouquet and stripping- even singing the Carpenter’s Close to You. This makes uncomfortable and distressing viewing.

Whaling women is difficult to pull off, risky for any director. Michael Attenborough’s version of Anthony and Cleopatra at the RSC in 2002 missed the mark, the Queen of Egypt frightfully pantomimic. Not here. The women get melodrama just right. Especially Hecuba, the old Queen of Troy played by Kate Duchene, who speaks with raw emotion when falling to her knees in a final moment of despair when Paris’s son Astyanax - her grandchild- is killed. There are no little sniggers or wandering eyes in the audience during this tricky speech.

With a female dominated crew and cast, it is easy to imagine that men could have become the object of disgust. But there was no such feminism. In this, men are not simply war-hungry and the source of all hardship. Michael Gould as Talthybius, the Greek functionary, is embarrassed when delivering Andromache’s disfigured dead baby. He does not treat the women cruelly. Rather, he is patient, formal, ashamed. In a way, he is a victim too- of his inability to refuse brutal orders.

What Women of Troy is condemning is unchallenged authority; it is criticising those who take decisions without seeing the anguish of the most vulnerable and innocent. Mitchell successfully draws out Euripides’ timeless truth that the real losers of war are not the surrendering or defeated army, but the little people who have lost their homes, their families and their hope.

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