Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: The Suppliant Women
A Civic Duty
In “The Suppliant Women” by Aeschylus, in a new version by David Greig, we take to the stage from the auditorium. Or, more precisely, a large number of women take to the stage on both our, and their behalf. As well as on behalf of those who cannot be there. For a civic commitment to the larger community forms the foundation for this extraordinary, and often joyous production. One featuring a cast of five professional performers and a chorus of nearly sixty, predominantly women volunteers. Yet if “The Suppliant Women” is high on the feel good factor, its feminist themes, as well as those addressing the plight of refugees, ask vital, and often difficult questions of the community. With perhaps the biggest question of all being that if a play written two and a half thousand years ago is so relevant today, how far have we really come? How far has our art, philosophy, or morality brought us if we’re still dealing with the very same issues?
Such primal questions lie at the heart of “The Suppliant Women” as well as many overtly political ones. Its tale of a boat full of women arriving in Argos seeking asylum from forced marriages in North Africa is simple and direct. But one that hides a hidden treasure throve of human depths lying beneath its artifice. As well as some deeply pertinent political questions. What are the costs of accepting, or refusing, refugees? Is it enough for a refugee to be embraced by another country? What about being embraced culturally? What about embracing the host’s culture? Is it truly asylum if their situation is essentially no different from the place they escaped from?
Following the ritual to Dionysus that officially opens the production, the action quickly shifts to that of a large group of women, tribe like, brandishing suppliant branches with tattered white flags. They sing, call, chant, and move as one throughout, to a simple yet deeply evocative soundtrack by John Browne, performed live by Callum Armstrong on Aulos and Ben Burton on percussion. Superbly directed by Ramin Gray, Gray ensures pace never slackens, crafting often beautiful sequences richly informed by some sensational choreography. Choreographer, Sasha Milavic Davies, moves the energy and bulk of the exceptionally large cast with a sense of freedom, complexity, and visible ease it's a joy to behold. While Oscar Batterham, Omar Ebrahim, and Gemma May do excellent jobs as the professional fulcrum against which the volunteer chorus rotate, “The Suppliant Women” is all about the chorus who are simply outstanding. The devices might be obvious in places - football styled chants, clapping and breaths, and swirling group sequences - yet "The Suppliant Women” doesn’t ask you to indulge the cast their inexperience. Instead, it proudly says ‘look what can be done.’ David Greig's hugely accessible script, a little too much so on occasion, loosing quite a lot of Aeschylus's lyrical richness, sets about wrapping itself around choral singing, with hip hop styled rhythms in places, married to spoken performance to great effect. If some sequences, such as the prolonged opening with full chorus, risk undeviating voices blending into an almost inaudible hum where words get lost, these are far and few between. Yet even then, the chorus, as a body, makes clear what lies beneath, and often beyond the words that have become unheard.
“The Suppliant Women” is a joyous telling of a less than joyous tale. A production that sets out to reclaim the heart of Greek theatre by making community engagement its cornerstone. Wonderfully refreshing, its tribal chorus, collectively shifting about the stage as a single unit, is incredibly impressive and a delight to watch. So do your civic duty and go see “The Suppliant Women.”
“The Suppliant Women” by Actors Touring Company and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, runs at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 1st