The Suppliant Women

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Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

05/10/16

It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to me, as I sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Written by Aeschylus two thousand, five hundred years ago, this wasn’t the usual contemporary adaptation of classic Greek theatre, but an attempt (costumes aside) to present it pretty much as it must have been performed in its original incarnation, complete with libations of wine and milk, choral odes and synchronised movement.

Add to this the fact that the cast of more than fifty performers is composed mostly of amateurs and you might have some notion of what an ambitious production this is, but you certainly won’t be prepared for the skill and grace with which the performers deliver their roles. Here’s a chorus, speaking as one, where you can hear every single word – a chorus that moves around the crowded stage with uncanny precision. They have only been rehearsing this since early September, yet their dedication shows at every turn.

The story may be thousands of years old and yet it’s remarkably prescient for our troubled times. The women of the title have fled their native Egypt where they are being forced to marry their cousins and, accompanied by their father, Danaaus (Omar Ebrahim), they arrive in Argos, seeking asylum. They take shelter in the temple of Zeus where they are met by The King (Oscar Batterham) who feels conflicted about their presence – to turn them away will offend Zeus, but the King is also aware that the local populace may take against these women, who are after all, migrants – and what if their presence here should cause a war between Argos and Egypt?

Skilfully directed by Ramin Grey, with musical accompaniment of percussion and Aulos (a traditional double-reeded instrument), this is a feast for the senses. The performance area is a bare breeze block paved space, that utilises the whole depth of the Lyceum’s curtainless stage, but there’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting (a scene set in near darkness where every woman carries a lantern is particularly effective) and plaudits must go to chorus leader, Gemma May, who manages to deliver all of her potentially tongue-twisting lines with absolute authority. If the idea of watching traditional Greek drama leaves you cold, don’t be misled – this is a riveting slice of theatre that deserves a wide audience.

Go, enjoy. There may not be a show like this one for another two thousand, five hundred years.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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