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The Trojan Women - Review * 12 November 2012


Greek tragedy distilled to modern parable, Caroline Bird's updating of Euripides' depiction of the aftermath of the fall of Troy is an intimate, charged ninety minutes formed around a group of universally strong performances, including Louise Brealey in three separate roles.

Transplanting the action to the mother and baby unit of a prison on the verge of going to seed, Bird's updating of the original source pulls several clever tricks. The play is bookended by video displayed on two small screens in the set, featuring the Gods Poseidon and Athena - played respectively by Roger Lloyd Pack and Tamsin Grieg - debating the fates about to befall those on earth within the small space before us.  Even from this point, it's notable that all of the dialogue of Euripides' original work has been changed from the Ancient Greek, save the name of the setting and those of the characters, while the chorus of several nameless roles in the original text has been collated into a single role, never named on stage but listed in Bird's text as 'Chorus.' Played here by Lucy Ellinson with tearful wide eyed fear, but also no small measure of comedy, this new role effectively depicts all of Troy's poor women brought to ruin by the actions of their rulers, handcuffed to her bed and thus immobile, her fate only staved off through advanced pregnancy. Sharing the stage with her through the entire duration is Dearbhla Molloy as Hecuba, the deposed Queen of Troy. Flinty and spiteful, but with a growing realisation of the desperation of her position, she makes an intriguing pairing with Chorus, an appearance of class discussion on equal terms following initial reticence, with neither leaving the stage for the entire unbroken ninety minutes.

If the play is formed around this two hander between Dearbhla Molloy and Lucy Ellinson, then it is interrupted by the numerous entrances and exits of the other members of the company. Top of that list of course is Louise Brealey, pulling triple duty in three roles the original text delegated to three separate cast members. Achieving such a feat is no small task, but each character is incredibly distinct from the others.  Hecuba's daughter Cassandra, driven mad by visions, appears here in red striped pyjamas, all relentless fury and febrile energy. Andromache, mother of Hecuba's doomed infant grandson, is wheelchair bound but marked with a defiant maternal spirit that eventually reaches its limit. And Helen, the instigator of the entire situation, is coiled sexuality, brazenly willing to shock her contemporaries through tactical nudity, and ultimately willing to do anything to survive. Three women, three different ages and mindsets and depictions of femininity in thrall - the virgin, the mother, the whore - all broken in their own way and all ultimately doomed.

For this can be seen as a feminist play, the women of Troy all widows and now at the mercy of the conquering Greek army. The mythic origins of the original work have been to the essentials - a story of a defeated city in thrall to new masters, with the female population reduced to mere spoils of war, human life made a possession of others - specifically the invading men. Taking the predominant male role is Jon Foster as Talthybius, originally a herald but now transplanted to the women's prison warder. Hamstrung by a chain of command but also ironically driven by a thirst for promotion, he is guarding them for the eventual arrival of Menelaus, played by Sam Cox. As Helen's jilted husband and leader of the invading army, moving from laconic bureaucratic menace to outright violent threat - with a tinge of farce - it's with his arrival that the play quite literally explodes in your face, before barrelling to a harrowing and shocking conclusion.

We have to make note of the staging of this play, as it is a unique experience. The audience sits around three sides of a small rectangular stage, with three beds placed up against the back wall adored with painted murals, the smell of disinfectant quite strong in the air. Throughout, the sounds of the rest of the prison can be heard, screams echoing in the distance, while outside the sole window a hazy orange light - the fires of Troy burning - glows with a subdued malevolence, giving the setting a contained yet apocalyptic air. The cast arrive from a door on the side of the room in between the audience, and perform mere feet away. The result is by far the most intimate play we've ever witnessed, giving the sense of not being a simple viewer but a fly on the wall, with these great roiling emotional events genuinely occurring before your very eyes in a pressure cooker like atmosphere - and it's quite difficult to not recoil when automatic weapons start being waved around.

If all this makes The Trojan Women sound like a slightly challenging play to watch you'd be right, but critically it is not a repellent experience. Moments of genuine comedy abound throughout, and the use of modern dialogue and props twist the original tragedy into interesting shapes. If you want an electrifying and intimate evening of genuine drama in the theatre, in the company of some excellent performances from every member of the cast, then this new version of a mythic narrative is frankly essential.

The Trojan Women is performing at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3HQ, until December 15 2012.

To check ticket availability, and to view a gallery of rehearsal photographs featuring the entire cast, visit the Gate Theatre website.