First performed in 415 B.C., Euripides’ The Women of Troy was a commentary on the behaviour of Greek soldiers during military campaigns at that time. However, because war is always a reality in some part of the world, the play has a perennial relevance, as women disproportionately bear the brunt of the worst aspects of human conflict. Adapted by Don Taylor and directed by Niall Phillips, it’s hard not to think of this production of The Women of Troy without also recalling the most vulnerable people in the news fleeing war-torn areas.
The play begins in the aftermath of the 10-year Trojan War, with the Greek army victorious and the women of the city (including those of the Trojan royal family) kept prisoner as ‘the spoils of war’. During the Second World War, the Axis powers kept women as sexual slaves in their respective ‘comfort stations’/‘joy divisions’. And so it is here that we meet the Trojan women in a similar environment, reminiscent of the licensed bordellos in Nevada, USA.
Also observing the ‘hotel’ at the beginning are the Greek gods Poseidon (George Almond) and Athena (Romanah Walkinshaw). While the presence of the gods may seem to be incongruous in a modern, secular adaptation of this play, if we were to think of them as political superpowers or a coalition of countries with a common agenda or values, their presence is very apt – raising many questions about the morality of their actions (or lack of…).
While all the women are suffering to some degree, a large part of the play deals with the Trojan royal household. Lida Chatzidimitriou (who plays Cassandra, the daughter of Queen Hecuba), channels the energy of Ophelia from the last days of her life in Hamlet. While Cassandra’s ‘ecstatic’ and ‘delirious’ acceptance of her fate is miscontrued, we know from her prophetic insight her own fate will be the catalyst for the death of Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greeks.
Mourning the death of her son Hector and husband King Priam, Hecuba (Lily Bennett) ‘unravels’ bit by bit, as news of what happens to her other children chips away at her soul. Bennett demonstrates the spiraling descent of despair and the wish for death to release her from heartache. Kat Monroe’s Andromache gives a similarly impassioned performance. However, in contrast to her mother-in-law, Andromache sees the will to live as something to be prized and not relinquished willingly.
The Chorus (played by Beth Webb, Hannah Radcliffe, Madelaine Crabb, Maggie McCartney, Melanie Kenny) are far from being a homogenous group. Each person has a distinct personality and appearance, but are united by their grim circumstances. Which leaves only Helen…
Over the millennia, there have been many different interpretations of Helen of Sparta/Troy. Some playwrights have viewed her in a sympathetic light. However in Taylor’s rendition (as deftly played by Katie McCall) Helen stands out because she exhibits no signs of remorse or empathy for the other women’s plight. She’s also confident in the use of her sexuality to assauge her cuckolded husband Menelaus (Harrison Proulx). Possessing a political skill for survival, Helen uses ‘logical rhetoric’ to place all the blame for her actions on Hecuba’s son Paris.
As you might expect, the soldiers in the play are seen in a less than flattering light, whether they are forcing ‘their attentions’ on the women or ‘just being the messenger’ – not willing to question the inhumanity of their orders (such as with Edward Gouvia’s Talthibyus).
While the play’s direction isn’t ‘explicit’, the play itself pulls no punches about the horrors that take place that are ‘justified’ by the victors. Revisiting The Women of Troy, I’m reminded of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (and its chain of events) and must conclude Euripides’ original opus was a big influence on Kane’s debut play. Both playwrights ‘gazed into the abyss’ and when it gazed back, their respective plays mirrored what they saw.
It is sometimes glibly said that “War is hell”. But if hell is reserved for the wicked, why do women and children (as this play points out) suffer the most in such circumstances? This particular play has no deus ex machina (unlike other Greek dramas) to resolve things. But what it does do is give an unflinching account of mankind’s baser nature, left unchecked in every civilisation and age.
© Michael Davis 2022
The Women of Troy ran at the Crescent Theatre from 16th to 19th March.