24 November 2007

Women of Troy – National Theatre, Friday 24th November 2007


Their men killed and their city burning, the women of Troy are to be taken back to Greece as slaves. Queen Hecuba tries to find a footing amidst her sorrow, as one daughter is murdered and the other, the mad Cassandra is taken away. Hector's widow Andromache finds she will be the new wife of a king, but her only son will be put to death. Finally, Menelaus arrives to decide what to do with Helen, the Spartan temptress that the Trojan women hold responsible for all the carnage and suffering, and the loss of their empire. Troy burns around them all.

I long to see a period play done in the correct setting and costumes for once. Theatre snobs insist that putting actors into modern dress against a concrete set make the play more “relevant” to modern audiences, so that we can “empathise” more closely – emotion and ideas supposedly “transcend time”. Well, I think its just lazy. Shakespeare isn’t less “relevant” if its done in Elizabethan or Jacobean costume, Restoration comedy isn’t any less (or indeed any more) funny performed against a Queen Anne backdrop – and Greek drama isn’t any less dramatic if its performed in chitons and sandals. Although Greek drama is highly stylised (and can be quite indigestible in its purest form), I really don’t think that putting the cast in cocktail frocks and badly fitting suits make the drama any more powerful. I suppose that directors do this in order to gain some sense of “ownership” of the text, but traditional costumes and settings, when handled sensitively and confidently (or given a clever modern twist – see my review for “The Country Wife”), can add so much to a play. And I would very much have liked to see them here.

There is undoubted emotional power in this play. But it really pays to have done your homework first, otherwise you may find yourself (like the Grecian Fleet) completely at sea. Everybody vaguely knows bits of the story of Helen of Troy and the Wooden Horse (although putting those aspects together make the woman sound a bit like Catherine the Great). Some people know about the bits that happens beforehand – Paris, the three goddesses and the golden apple. But what happens after? No, I didn’t know either. So I admit that I found what little plot there is quite hard to follow (in fact, I had to have the context explained to me on the way home).

Of all the performances, only Kate Duchene seemed really in control of her material, playing Hecuba, Queen of the defeated Trojans, with folorn majesty and terrified, haughty grandeur. Sinead Matthews ought to be wooden-horsewhipped – her Cassandra was gabbled, inarticulate and at times completely inaudible. Yes, OK, she’s supposed to be a raving prophetess, and her ravings are not meant to make a whole lot of sense - but do your audience a favour, love, and let them hear what you’re actually saying. I don’t know what it is lately with young actresses – so few of them seem to leave drama school with any kind of projection skills. I just hope that her parents never go to see this play and see her standing up on a table in high heels with her minge on show to the paying public. Anastasia Hille was good as Andromache, although she’s obviously never held a live baby in her arms – if she held a real child like that, the poor little bugger would suffocate with a face full of tit. Mind you, I can think of worse ways to go, when the option is being thrown from the battlements. And Helen – isn’t she supposed to be stunningly beautiful - the one whose face launched a thousand ships? I can only assume that, when people saw Susie Trayling, they were sailing away from her. God, what a dog. And Sparta is obviously located just south of Belfast – Stephen Kennedy as King Menelaus gave Ian Paisley a run for his money in the accent stakes.

The director showed the arrogance usual to many of the breed by not thinking about the sightlines of the set. In some theatres, those up in the gods can’t see half the set because its placed too far back. And in this production, those in the front couldn’t see a lot of the action because we were faced with three long tables ranged across the stage, each with two chairs which had their backs towards us. In the visual clutter of legs, table tops, wastepaper bins and chair backs, a lot of the stage was obscured for those of us who sat in the cheap seats right at the front. But hey, what do us poor people matter? Fuck us – we only paid a tenner each; we don’t deserve the same view as those who paid £39.50.

The Sad Garden Historian in me was very pleased to see that the corpse of the child was dressed with flowers from the correct period of history. But what I didn’t understand was, if the women managed to climb the ladder, break the window of the internal corridor and smash their way into an office to find the plant, why didn’t they break out of the windows on the other side of the office and make their escape? Far better than being made a sexual slave by a rampant, muscular Spartan warrior ……hang on, that’s not such a bad idea as it goes – where do I sign up?
What the critics thought: