In the speech introducing his first season as the Lyceum’s Artistic Director, David Greig went big on the notion of “community” and restoring the theatre to the people of the city, putting them at the heart of what goes on in this beautiful building. With The Suppliant Women, he delivers very well on that promise, even if at first glance, a two-and-a-half millennia old play might seem an unexpected vehicle for doing so.
There is a good reason for the programming choice, of course. Aeschylus‘ play gives the account of fifty women fleeing Egypt, where they face marriage to their cousins, for the sanctuary of their people’s ancient homeland of Argos. As such, it’s full of modern resonances. Migrant crisis? Forced marriage? Violence against women? Take your pick. “The woes of women and exiles are endless,” runs one line.
The chorus is made up of young women volunteers from the Edinburgh community, led ably by professional Gemma May. The relative timidity of some of them reveals their inexperience, but the play is in some ways better for that. Indeed, they work very well together as a united front of disparate individuals, synched together by fortune (and some excellent direction). Most of their dialogue is chanted in unison, backed by some wonderfully bittersweet middle-eastern music.
Greig, and director Ramin Gray of Actors Touring Company, have also framed the play very well. The peculiarities of Greek theatre are explained at curtain up – this is a community chorus, as it would have been in ancient times. The play is funded by citizens and benefactors, as it would have been in ancient times. Finally, we’re welcomed with a libation by Willie Rennie MSP* to thank those benefactors, including, most importantly, the paying public. It’s a nice device to make a light point about theatre funding, while also bringing home the spirit of the play.
The Lyceum stage has been stripped bare for this, and feels vast, with the audience allowed uninterrupted views through to the fire exits at the rear. This space is put to good use by choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies who has the chorus swaying and twirling around the stage, suppliant branches in hand. A more elaborate set isn’t missed; the group have enough visual impact as it is.
Yet despite the massed ranks of women being the key component of the play, Aeschylus places their fates in the hands of two men – their father Danaus (Omar Ebrahim) and Pelasgus, King of Argos (Oscar Batterham) – along with the god Zeus, who gets name-dropped constantly. The besuited Batterham brings smarts and a certain cool calm to Pelasgus. As he weighs up his options with the refugees placed before him, it calls to mind the deliberations of Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ebrahim makes a good job of fatherliness, though it’s not clear what his forced northern accent is bringing to the party.
This imbalance between males (individual, elevated, able to take action) and females (de-individualised, servile, reliant on others) would perhaps not have struck classical audiences as strange. It does feel so to a modern audience, though, leading one back to consider what inferences we’re being invited to draw. The play has been staged in such a way that a message of female empowerment and equality is clear (explicity so by the time we reach the climax), but all the same, it sits slightly at odds with the original, whose mythic, storytelling element is still very palpable, and which, presumably, carried no such message.
Likewise, it’s obvious we’re being urged to think kindly of immigrants in our midst, as Pelasgus eventually does. But then Scotland, in contrast to much of Great Britain, has already proved itself welcoming on the whole. So are we to take this as a pat on the back for our own hospitality, or as a call to any Ukippers lingering in the audience to start opening up their arms? Or are there other possibilities…?
Because we have also only seen a third of the story. The Suppliant Women is the first of a tetralogy, the other two parts of which are now lost to time. The second, it is believed, had war visited upon Argos by the Egyptians wanting their women back. Immigration leading to war? It’s another conclusion that might be drawn.
There’s a definite sense that this is only the introduction to a story. In narrative terms, very little happens. The women arrive, they beg asylum, they get it. It’s done in one act of ninety minutes, and the finale could easily be the pre-interval cliffhanger. Aeschylus’ missing words inevitably leave us guessing, and while Greig’s opening salvo might in some ways do likewise, this visually arresting, broad thinking production acts as a statement of intent and bodes well for what is to come. Maybe it too is only the introduction to a story…
* A different dignitary is planned for each night