Theatre Review: The Trojan Women

By - Friday 16th November, 2012

The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill Gate
Time from East Croydon  40 minutes

A very short walk from Notting Hill Gate Underground station (a few stops from Victoria on the Circle Line) will bring you to this excellent ‘upstairs’ space renowned for innovation and premieres of new writing. Earlier in the year, The Gate’s Artistic Director Christopher Haydon triumphed with The Prophet, Hassan Abdulrazzak’s look at the uneasy position of the Egyptian middle class during the fall of Mubarak. Now, as part of the same Aftermath Season, Haydon returns with The Trojan Women, Caroline Bird’s violently relevant take on Euripides’ tragedy.

The titular women of Troy, or what is left of them, are in the infirmary of a prison. As an audience, we find ourselves in the mother and baby unit – and thanks to Jason Southgate’s excellent set and the thrust staging, we do literally find ourselves in the room – where Hecuba, queen of a city which is no more, and the Chorus, represented here by a young pregnant woman handcuffed to a bed, are routinely visited by their Greek guard. Dearbhla Molloy thrives as the arrogant Hecuba, presenting an utterly unlikeable figure in a compelling manner as the former queen proves unable to comprehend that anything has ever been her fault. Molloy is skilled at presenting a queen only reluctantly prepared to reveal her anguish over the death of her sons, and her steadfast refusal to apologise for trading her living daughter into slavery in exchange for her dead son’s body left me chilled. Her interactions with the Chorus (Lucy Ellinson) shatter any illusions of sisterhood or women’s solidarity that we might hope to find in the darkness of the play’s surroundings. Caroline Bird has crafted a scathing critique of the class barriers which we so often ignore.

Any illusions of sisterhood are shattered: Dearbhla Molloy as Hecuba and Lucy Ellinson as Chorus (Photo by Iona Firouzabadi)

But Hecuba is no caricature of Marie Antoinette, and the Chorus is not some kind of noble commoner. Ellinson plays her part – one that plummets and rises as a cocktail of medication and the pains of childbirth overtake her – in a matter that is so convincingly ordinary that when she talks of hiding behind her and her husband’s swingball set in the garden while he is murdered in front of her, it is hard not to have to fight back a tear or two. In a handful of words Caroline Bird creates an image of a young, happy marriage that tells us everything we need to know about what this woman has lost, and Ellinson’s voice and demeanour came close to breaking at least one audience member’s heart.

Here you will find no shouted Arabic, no suicide vests and no placards decrying the evils of Tony B.Liar.

Violently relevant, relevantly violent: Jon Foster as Talthybius (Photo by Iona Firouzabadi)

Jon Foster’s Talthybius brings levity to the play on his first appearance, but with each successive return the abundant feeling turns to unease, then menace, and finally dread. Foster is excellent at presenting the gradual slip of a jovial mask on a man who is as driven by ambition as the rest of his Greek comrades. The ‘violent relevance’ discussed above comes into play most often with his character. Many directors use an opportunity for a modern setting to fill us with explicit images of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gaza Strip, but here you will find no shouted Arabic, no suicide vests and no placards decrying the evils of Tony B.Liar. Bird’s text talks of the primal, inevitable nature of violence (in a memorable speech delivered superbly by Louise Brealey) and Haydon has eschewed direct comparisons with modern conflicts in favour of presenting violence as we understand it today – non-specific black uniforms, Kalashnikovs and handcuffs.In a particularly nuanced decision, Talthybius is mocked by Hecuba because his commander, Odysseus, has only given him a pager as a means of communication. When he returns later in the play, he defiantly waves his gift from the general, a ‘brand new phone’ in the queen’s face, saying ‘it’s the most high tech one’. Eagle eyes will notice that the phone in question is an iPhone 3G (which ceased production in 2009), simultaneously showing that Odysseus’ disdain for his dogsbody extends to buying him an unlocked phone from CeX, and that Talthybius, for all his talk, is ultimately a little man from the provinces with no grasp of technology who has been given a taste of power by the army. Foster’s desperation to advance through the ranks steadily increases throughout the play and his personal journey is entirely convincing.

These perhaps geeky tidbits are just some examples of the care and detail evident in this production, right down to the hospital gowns appearing sterile and clean, but hardly brand new. In casting Louise Brealey as Cassandra, Andromache and Helen, Haydon raises the importance of this care to new levels. Brealey is convincing as all three, although her Andromache didn’t quite match the standard of her Helen or Cassandra. The differentiation between the characters is perfect, and her interactions (as Helen) with the gloriously confident Menelaeus (played by Sam Cox in a turn that sees him entirely believably go from towering, unassailable fascist to near-quivering cuckold and back again) are the joy of the final act of the play.

A Classics buff myself, I would recommend The Trojan Women to anyone with an interest in the ancient world. Engaging and highly amusing video pieces bookend the play, starring Roger Lloyd-Pack as Poseidon (who talks as easily of the Greeks taking Troy with a ‘giant rocking horse’ as he does of a soldier playing with a child’s severed head ‘like a bowling ball’) and Tamsin Greig as Athena in an effective presentation of the distance between the gods and men (or women, as the case may be) of the epics. To anyone in Croydon, I would implore you to see this show. At only 40 minutes from East Croydon on a slow journey, The Gate is a venue that we should all be taking full advantage of and The Trojan Women is fantastic argument for why. This is a fiercely engaging piece that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go for the full ninety minutes, and I loved every second.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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