National Theatre, Olivier
Mar 16- 28
Reviewed by Theodora Carlile
Integral Liberal Arts Program
Saint Mary's College
Moraga, California 94575
The National Theatre offers theatre-goers another chance to view Euripides' beautifully constructed and horribly logical anti-war drama--this time in the up-to-date, no-nonsense translation of Kenneth McLeish, directed by Annie Castledine. Since the sixties The Women of Troy has been one of the three or four of Euripides' tragedies which are most often produced, and with good reason. It is simple in plot, yet extremely moving in its episodes and as a whole. It tells the bleak story of the irrevocable horrors of war, but it is a story where human values persist in spite of all. Unlike The Bacchae, for example, or even Medea, both popular on the modern stage, there is no confusion or tension about where our sympathies should lie. In Women of Troy we can root for the underdog without reservation. It is a wonderful chance for director, actors and audience.
This production takes advantage of that chance with several notable strengths. Castledine is committed to bringing the lessons of the drama to bear on our own times and conditions. There are signs throughout to suggest the translation of ancient Greek situations (themselves Euripides' shaping of an ancient myth to comment on contemporary fifth century events) into more familiar current images of war, displacement and exile and especially of the recent experiences of women in times of such devastation. To this end Iona McLeish provides a strong sombre set, multilevel, reminiscent of both Greek ampitheatre and contemporary urban war zone. The music is of a piece. Musicians visible on stage (always a treat) render the music of Adrian Johnston, giving a full and connected quality to the experience as a whole, combining multicultural and archaic sounds with contemporary Western motifs. To my mind the choral movement and the interpretation of choral sequences stand as the high point of the production. A full complement of twelve chorus members weave the emotional context. They are the titular role and the heart of what this particular production has to say. Their ethnic variety, their individuality, and the combination of naturalism and ritual in both movement and song enriches but never undermines the unity of the experiences they portray. Associate Director Annabel Arden deserves a great share of the credit for this element of the production.
The acting overall was confident, thoughtful and committed. But here the results were more mixed. For the most part, naturalism brought the situation to the present and blended gracefully with elements of a more ritualistic 'past.' I was especially impressed by Rosemary Harris' intelligent Hecuba and Jane Birkin's lost, quietly stunned Andromache. Josettte Bushell-Mingo made a valiant effort to render a realistically 'insane' Cassandra but seemed always, to my eye, a good actress attempting a difficult task. The serious flaw of the production, however, was not failed acting but misplaced directing. In keeping with her attempt to translate Euripides' ideas into contemporary terms, Castledine chose to portray the Greeks as 'American.' This might have worked well, but Peter McEnery's Menelaus delivered his lines in a heavy stereotype of a southern accent, more 'poor white trash' than a suggestion of brutal affluence and haughty power, and Janie Dee's Helen was a visual recreation of Marilyn Monroe. The points, for once, were both heavy-handed and confusing.
'There's an opportunity missed,' said the women sitting next to me as the play ended. I agreed. It was in the Helen episode in particular that the evening failed in its aims, here that Castledine had somehow lost her occasion. The play continually raises the terrible question of violence. Unquestionably those who have no military power (women for the most part) or those overpowered by greater strength (the Trojans ) have no defense against the powerful. Their values, lives and future hopes are all subject to the whims of brutality. For women the only power left is the power of their attraction as the prizes of the conqueror. Euripides' unrelenting logic draws this fact of life out most clearly in the Andromache episode. Castledine's visual choices enhance the point. Andromache is brought on as a lifeless statue, shrouded amongst the gold in the trophy cart. She is a prize for the conqueror, valuable in herself and a sign of his victory. It soon becomes clear that, though she is reduced to slavery, one choice does remain; the choice between death at her own hands or a life with her former enemy. And in such a life she might win his affection and thus some renewal of hope. Andromache is confused. She has played the part of perfect wife. Is there a life apart from that role? Or rather is there an Andromache who can slip from being the perfect wife of Hector to being the perfect wife of Hector's enemy? Should she not rather fulfill her role as loyal wife and chose death.? Hecuba, with a great sense of futility and irony, advises life over death--'Your new master: honour him, obey him,/Snare his affection.'
In the next episode we are drawn to sympathize wholeheartedly with the hatred of the women of Troy towards Helen. She is the cynical cause of this destruction. Yet might there not be some complications to mitigate this unreserved hatred and simple-minded blame? Where Hecuba counsels her daughter-in-law to value life above all, and as a war-prize, to adjust to her new master, here she insists that Helen, the most highly prized of war prizes, should have followed honor and loyalty to husband. Like Andromache Helen gains her only power from her attractions as 'prize.' But in this production the similarity of the women is obscured and even denied. Not only Helen's appearance, in a costume sharply divergent from the other women's, but the broad nature of the acting and the lack of any opportunity for the development of depth in the interchange between the women, any even fleeting sense of solidarity, reduces this potentially riveting episode to grim comic interlude.
In the end all the women move on to life, a life whose only hope lies in pleasing the brutal master. It is not a happy moment. But in this particular production we might be tempted to assign blame to an evil Helen or a weak Menelaus, rather than to face, as Euripides does, some deeper harshness in life.
St. Mary's College
(Theodora Carlile is in London researching women practitioners of ancient theater.)