Performance seen: 12th January 2008
The production begins with the Chorus (all given individual names in the programme) already on stage. Immediately the prologue, featuring Poseidon and Athena (a rare case of a deus ex machina at the beginning of a play), is cut. I wasn't too surprised by this - Michael Caccoyanis' film version does it, and modern productions can be uncomfortable with actually seeing the gods. But it changes the tone of the piece. Euripides' play is a warning against hubris - the destruction the Greeks have visited upon Troy will be visited on them in turn. This was an important subject of debate in fifth century Athens - Thucydides says the same in the context of the fate of the island of Melos in 416 BC, the event that is often thought to be the allegorical inspiration for Euripides' play. Removing the prologue makes the play an examination of the fate of women in a defeated city, with the Trojan women as victims whose abusers have no signalled comeuppance.
That's not where my problem comes, though. The women are in 1930s ballgowns, looking for all the world as if Hercule Poirot is about to summon them and expose the murderer. I don't have an issue with such modern dress productions, and putting aside the Balkans/Afghanistan/Iraq contemporary war setting that is often found in modern productions of Greek tragedy is refreshing. But these people have had their city and families destroyed around them, so I would expect that the ballgowns would at least be ripped and dirty. But, whilst a couple of the Chorus have bruised arms, their ballgowns are pristine, their make-up perfect, not a hair out of place. This undercuts the play's horror - I felt that, even in the pyrotechnic destruction of the set at the end, Mitchell's production never quite conveys the calamity that has happened to its subjects. As Michael Billington notes in The Guardian, there's something missing from the emotional landscape of the production - only towards the end did I feel it starts to connect with the heart of the text.
I agree with Billington that the words are key. So it is a shame that the dialogue is often difficult to hear. The cast don't project as well as they might, and they have to compete with a constant low hum that is meant to represent the sounds of the docks where the production is set. The action takes place inside a two-level warehouse. The Chorus are at stage level, but above are the offices where Helen is imprisoned. She is constantly seen prowling to and fro, a device which keeps her in mind, but it often distracting.
Though I can be enthusiastic for Anastasia Hille's Andromache, who shows the appropriate level of panic, I'm much less so about some of the other performances. Kate Duchêne's Hecuba seems anodyne in comparison to, say, Katherine Hepburn in Caccoyanis' version. Talthybius' role is split between two actors, both of whom seem quite muted.
And then there's Sinead Matthews as Cassandra. I generally find depictions of Cassandra unsatisfactory. I think this is because so often they try to explain the character in terms of modern psychoanalysis, and I don't think Cassandra's madness can be explained that way. She is insane because she is cursed by Apollo, so that she sees the future clearly, but cannot get anyone to believe her. Reading that through a diagnosis of 'manic depression' doesn't always help. Matthews is hampered by having to compete with shouting and fire alarms, but even so she could be clearer. And I knew almost immediately that she would demonstrate her madness by ripping all her clothes off (similarly, I was not surprised when Helen ended up in nothing but her knickers).
There's also one oddity. Before each choral ode, there is dancing, which beings with muted music, before being overwhelmed by the sounds of the Jazz Age. For me, this device (which Mitchell apparently also used in her production of Iphigeneia at Aulis) just doesn't work (see the review in The Stage, which characterizes these as a distraction). When most of the production is so naturalistic, impressionist moments like this are confusing (and if the production is prepared to embrace impressionism, why ditch the gods?). Further confusion is added when departed characters such as Cassandra and Andromache come back on stage, though I can see the point of reintroducing Menelaus and Helen, to underline the assumption of most productions that Helen will seduce her husband and escape punishment (though the very best production I ever saw, that of Andrei Serban in 1992, concluded Helen's scene with her being stripped, raped by a bear and executed).
This is far from being the worst production of a Greek tragedy that I've ever seen, but it is one of the weaker versions of Trojan Women. But perhaps I want something different to everyone else when I see a Greek tragedy. And this didn't deliver it.
Women of Troy is on until 27th February.