The Royal Exchange Theatre; Tuesday 28th March 2017
2500 years ago the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote a 3-part tragedy which raised a series of difficult and perplexing moral questions for his audience. His play, The Suppliant Women, tells the disturbing story of a group of women who flee the threat of forced marriage in their Egyptian homeland and seek refuge across the Mediterranean Sea on the Greek island of Argos.
In this new version of the Aeschylus classic, Scottish playwright David Greig has transferred many of the original Greek theatrical performance styles and customs straight onto the modern stage. And even despite the plot and characters being 2500 years old, Grieg has deliberately chosen not to attempt to make it “more relevant”.
The result of Greig’s adherence to the Aeschylus original is stunning. This is not a stuffy old classic play: performed by elitist actors who think they’re the pinnacle of the acting profession; watched by an elitist audience who want to be seen to be attending what they alone insist is the pinnacle of refined culture. This is not like watching Shakespeare and then remembering how annoying it was at school to be forced to study something you didn’t understand, relate to, or have any interest in.
Instead, Greig’s adaption does exactly what a paying audience wants theatre to do: it gets you thinking, it lets your mind drift away for a few hours, it leaves you pleased you made the effort to go out, makes you feel you definitely got value for money, it makes you want to tell your friends to go and see it.
So many turbulent emotions were produced during this performance: at one point my mind drifted as I wondered how good this would have been if I’d been sat on the stone steps of some grand, open, hill-side theatre on a steaming hot day in Athens 25 centuries ago. And the next moment I’m suddenly shocked and very uncomfortable (almost embarrassed) that the issues being raised by this ancient plotline are the same issues still making headline news all over the world today.
The evening began with a homage to ancient Greek theatrical tradition: a local dignitary took to the stage to offer a libation in the form of red wine which was poured around the performance area – in this case the honour fell to the Lord Mayor of Manchester himself.
Lead actor Omar Ebrahim then briefly explained the context of the play in terms of the original trilogy, also explaining that the stars of the show, the suppliant women, were almost all amateur performers / volunteers from the Manchester area.
What followed next was unlike any normal theatrical experience. The chorus of suppliant women emerged on stage and began a slow, rhythmic and mesmerising chant – the whole performance was delivered in this style, the words may not have necessarily rhymed but it was still hypnotically poetic in delivery.
The suppliant women danced in union and sang their story: they told of who they were and why they had landed on Greek shores. They eloquently and defiantly articulated the strength of their argument and the lengths they were willing to go to in order to avoid the harm they feared. They presented a powerful case to the King of Argos, insisting that he should grant them asylum. But the King countered with his agonising dilemma: fail to do the right thing or risk internal political conflict and possibly even external war?
The Royal Exchange’s circular stage construction with it’s multi-level seating was a perfect platform for this play. Sat as I was on an upper level, within just a few minutes this literally became an edge-of-the-seat experience – with so many performers on stage at once there was much to see, and, just as importantly, so much to not miss out on. As the large chorus of performers sang and danced together, it was sometimes difficult to follow the wording, but the Exchange’s subtitle screens were conveniently available on the wall, useful for everyone on this occasion, not just the hard of hearing. And strangely, reading the words as well as hearing them seemed to amplify their power and meaning – whoever translated this play from the original Greek scripts has done an excellent job of capturing the drama whilst still making it sound pleasing to the ear.
The acting and singing performance was accompanied by live percussionists using drums, triangles and other simple instruments. The ambient musical mood added a dramatic and sinister edge, cleverly assisting the rhythmic poetry being recited on the stage. Something about the slow, hypnotic, heartbeat-rate tempo of the backing music greatly amplified the uncomfortable anxiety at the disturbing story being told on stage.
The 90-minute performance (without a break) unfurled at a perfect pace, holding and strangling the audience’s attention. Like the best dramas / films / books, this performance unleashed question after question upon the audience, before answering some of them and then quickly moving on to pose even more. Would the King of Argos risk war against Egypt in order to do the right thing? Would the people of Argos really vote in a referendum to decide where or not the suppliant women should stay? Were the suppliant women really willing to commit suicide to escape the sexual violence they feared? Are we, the audience, about to see a theatrical scene of sexual violence on what should be a gentle Tuesday night out at the theatre? Why wasn’t I warned about this? Why has everyone in this audience got their arms folded and their hand over their mouths, are they thinking what I’m thinking?
The end came far too soon and was a genuine shock. With this being a tragedy, it was probably appropriate that it ended for the audience on an infuriating cliff-hanger. The agony of the unresolved ending was instantly made worse by recalling the introduction at the start of the performance: The Suppliant Women is part one of a trilogy, Aeschylus’ final two parts have never been found. And, given that the world’s archaeologists, treasure hunters and classical scholars have had two-and-a-half millenia to look for them, it’s highly unlikely that they ever will be found.
Perhaps then this was an apt ending: the fate of the suppliant women and those from whom they seek help is unknown and unresolved, just as it seems to be for those in similar, modern-day predicaments.