“A pregnant woman is a Trojan horse”
After Mike Bartlett’s inimitable slant on Euripides in his contemporary version of Medea for Headlong, it is now the turn of poet Caroline Bird to reimagine the world of Ancient Greek tragedy for modern times with her take on the same playwright’s The Trojan Women, directed by the Gate’s own AD Christopher Haydon. Set in the mother and baby ward of a prison in the fallen city of Troy, the mothers, wives and sisters of the destroyed army await their fate as the marauding Greek invaders decide how to divide their spoils of war, chief among them Hecuba, the former queen and Helen, the woman in whose name the Greeks fought their bloody war. (FYI I attended the final preview, courtesy of their bargaintastic Gatecrasher offer).
Bird’s prose clearly has a keen poetic edge, especially in conjuring up the desolation of a defeated nation, and perhaps surprisingly it also opens a vein of bleak humour, at times a blessed relief from the sheer harshness of it all but also sometimes feeling dangerously close to a glibness that feels wrong and best embodied by Jon Foster’s blokey Talthybius who is frequently very close to this line. Lucy Ellinson’s excellent one-woman Chorus negotiates the balancing act with much more skill, her very pregnant tragicomic countrywoman shackled to the bed and thus an unwitting witness to everything, passing incisive comment, asking pertinent questions, bitterly relating the very human toll of the conflict to those normally protected by palace walls.
Dearbhla Molloy’s icily regal Hecuba is a study in stubborn disbelief, unrepentant of her decadent lifestyle and the choices that have (partially) led to the downfall of Troy and the death of so many of her sons. But her torment is not yet over as she still has daughters and grandchildren, and Molloy skilfully shows the slow crumbling of resolve as horror follows horror follows horror, yet still possessed of a feistiness that will never quit. And one certainly gets one’s money’s worth of Louise Brealey who is cross-cast as Cassandra, Andromache and Helen, putting across the respective tortured anguish, bitter recrimination and cool self-preservation of the three younger women whose fates are variously resolved by the men who are their new masters.
In modernising Greek tragedy though, there is always the issue of how to deal with the gods. Divine manipulation comes as part and parcel of this ancient world, so relocating the story to a modern context has to somehow take this into account. Bird and Haydon deal with this by having Poseidon (a wonderfully sardonic Roger Lloyd Pack) and Athena (a drily dismissive Tamsin Greig) appear on flickering video screens, an otherworldly presence framing the action. But they also try to have it the other way too, with a healthy dose of scepticism being directed at those directly affected by interventions from Mount Olympus – it left me rather confused as to whether this was a world in which people believed in the gods or not, or indeed if this was actually important – I’m still not decided.
The intimacy of the Gate Theatre is a good fit for intensity of the drama as the antiseptic surrounds of Jason Southgate’s hospital set are polluted more and more as the desperation of the stream of visitors manifests itself in frustrated littering. Haydon ensures the pace is steady as the tension coils ever-tighter before the explosive arrival of Sam Cox’s sharp-suited Menelaus and the overall effect is a powerful portrayal of a society reeling from the impact of its destruction and the realisation that the aftermath can often be as horrible as the war.