Image by Stephen Cummiskey
THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 1 April, 2017
At around 2,500 years old, Aeschylus’s celebrated Greek tragedy The Suppliant Women – sadly the sole remaining play in what is now referred to as his Danaid Tetralogy – is amongst the oldest surviving plays in the literary canon, though despite its considerable age, this fresh, superb new adaptation from the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh’s new artistic director, David Greig, puts the highly topical central themes of asylum, democracy and gender equality firmly at the fore, ensuring the piece resonates fully with a wide-ranging, contemporary audience.
In keeping with the Ancient Greek tradition of sponsoring plays, each performance opens with an on-stage libation from a local civic dignitary, adding a nice authentic touch to proceedings; a respected, community representative offering a blessing to the Gods and giving thanks to the supporters of the theatre by pouring a bottle of red wine onto the Royal Exchange stage.
Connecting familiar historical concerns with many of the most significant and hotly contested issues of the contemporary world, Aeschylus’s politically charged, feminist tale follows the fifty young daughters of Danaus, The Suppliant Women of the title, as they flee across the Mediterranean, escaping forced marriage with their Egyptian cousins, and arrive on the shores of Argos, hoping for protection and assistance from King Pelasgus and the Argive people.
Free from unnecessary visual gimmicks or scenery, Ramin Gray’s bold, fluid production relies almost entirely on the strength of its performances, the rhythm of the verse and the central message being conveyed, with Lizzie Clachan’s bare, breeze-block stage all that is needed to host such an immediate work.
However, pivotal to the play’s success is the outstanding community chorus comprising 34 young (unpaid) performers assembled from across the Greater Manchester region, and in contrast to the supporting chorus found in many Greek plays, the chorus here are elevated quite significantly from mere interjectors to central protagonists.
A lot of comment has been made in the last few weeks about the ethics of using volunteers in a cast where certain members are paid. Is that fair? That is of course not for us to say. Though what can be said is is that the volunteer women are the real driving force behind the play, remaining on-stage for the entire duration and tackling the vast bulk of the challenging verse in impressive style.
With regards to the professional trio, Gemma May is a particular standout as the fierce, charismatic chorus leader, with Omar Ebrahim and Oscar Batterham offering strong support as Danaus and The King, respectively.
Accompanying the swirling, ritualistic choreography of Sasha Milavic Davies, John Browne’s moving score – performed live by percussionist Ben Burton and acoustic piper Callum Armstrong – combines pulsing Middle Eastern rhythms, reconstructed Ancient chants and sumptuous harmonies to further elevate the women’s expressive and poignant lament for asylum.
Though bold and modern in its approach, Gray and Greig’s urgent and timely production is steeped in historical tradition, and with that in mind, The Suppliant Women offers audiences a rare, yet fascinating opportunity to see contemporary Greek drama executed with great skill and attention to detail.
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes (approx.) (no interval)
Final Performance at The Royal Exchange Theatre: Saturday 1 April, 2017
For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.