Euripides’ ‘The Trojan Women’ is, by the director’s own admission, ‘principally a very heavy and emotionally draining play’. Durham University Classical Theatre have remained true to the script and to original Ancient Greek style in their revival of the play, currently being performed at the Assembly Rooms.
Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, Euripides gives a voice to the wives of the kings and princes of the fallen Troy. After the devastation created by the Greeks, there is little joy left for the women. If they are not already husbandless and childless, they will be by the end of the piece.
The production has a shaky start. As the masked figure of Poseidon walks through the audience to the stage his pre-recorded speech is projected into the auditorium, but unfortunately an over-zealous use of echo on the recording makes his words difficult to comprehend.
Additionally, the fact that the audience hears the speech before seeing the actor leads to confusion over the speaker of the words. When he arrives onstage, Poseidon lumbers through a series of wooden stock gestures, which barely aid the audience’s understanding of the scene.
After this laboured opening, the action turns to the ruin of Troy, where Hecuba (Beth Greenwood) quickly lifts the piece with her presence.
Indeed, all of the female actors in the play display excellent characterisation. They are conscious of their roles throughout, continuing to react physically to the situation developing onstage with subtle gestures and facial expressions which balance the melodrama of the text nicely.
Additionally, the blocking of the piece is sublime. At every moment the actors are arranged beautifully onstage, with close attention to spatial awareness; the women huddled together, maintaining contact with one another, at all times considering different levels, with some standing, sitting or lying across each other. This in particular means that the piece does not sink beneath the tragedy of the text, but promotes a search for beauty in the tragic, and highlights the strength of the women despite their woe, whilst being reminiscent of the composition of classical art.
There are points at which the dialogue seems arduous. Particularly in the first act, the majority of cast members rushed through their lines, but took too long a pause before responding to the lines of other characters. For a play so heavily reliant on dialogue, the piece would have benefited from more work on speeding up reaction times and slowing down lines where clarity was lost through the slurring of words.
A wonderful example of this came during a dialogue between Hecuba and Andromache (Heather Cave) in which they nearly overlapped their lines as they spoke to one another. This meant that the scene flowed quickly, whilst still maintaining the precision necessary for the audience to follow the plot.
The characters take the stage between several stands exhibiting artefacts, making it clear that they are in a museum. This transforms the characters into artefacts themselves, perhaps alluding to the notion of women being written out of history by their male counterparts.
Furthermore, the exhibition of the emotion of the women invites the audience to consider the sentiment behind the facts of history.
The museum is constructed of both ancient and modern exhibits and around fifty white masks are suspended in the air above the stage. These are symbolic of the victims of the Trojan War.
When Andromache’s baby is murdered, a white mask is lifted from his corpse and suspended with the others to represent the passing of his soul.
This idea modernises Euripides’ theme of death in war and rouses the audience to consider this in a modern day situation. This is an interesting concept, which could have been explored more within the production.
The sound of whispered voices is played at intervals within the play, perhaps representing the prayers of the survivors, or the responses of the gods, effectively allowing the audience to pause for breath between scenes and consider the action.
The lighting changes are sparse, making them extremely successful when they do occur. At the beginning of the play, Hecuba is shown in a spotlight, dramatically introducing her to the audience. Additionally, as the piece draws to a close, the characters are shown in dappled straw lighting as a reminder of the bloodshed.
Overall, the piece is incredibly well acted and extremely well directed in terms of lighting and blocking. The production could have profited from changing the opening, perhaps even cutting it altogether, as it immediately introduces a sluggish pace from which it struggled to claw back.
Additionally, some of the characters’ monologues are also incredibly extensive and editing their length would not have been detrimental to the plot or appreciation of the piece.
Difficult as it is to ‘enjoy’ a tragedy so steeped in anguish from the start, the piece was clearly well executed and demonstrated superbly the way in which misery can be entwined with beauty.
Photographs: Nicoletta Asciuto