Theatre Review - The Trojan Women

In her brilliant adaptation of Euripides's classic tragedy, Caroline Bird updates the language for a contemporary audience but retains its timeless quality as a theatrical response to war – the action could be situated in any number of present-day conflict zones.

Iona Firouzabadi’s pre-recorded video, a work of art in itself, creates atmosphere and a palpable sense of menace before the play even begins. Blurred images suggest bombs falling, black clouds, army vehicles, crowds, beatings, figures fleeing, and are accompanied by shouts, screams and the sound of explosions that evoke the chaos of war. Then Tamsin Greig and Roger Lloyd Pack appear on the TV monitors, as Athena and Poseidon, to give us the background to the Trojan War and explain their involvement.

Three beds dominate the stage. A hospital has been transformed into a prison. Troy has fallen and its war widows are captive, waiting to learn their fate. Cassandra is in the psychiatric wing and Helen is kept in isolation. But the main focus is Dearbhla Molloy’s cool, dignified Hecuba, the fallen Trojan queen, who is held in the hospital’s maternity ward. She shares her “cell” with Lucy Ellinson’s wide-eyed Chorus, a heavily pregnant “Everywoman”, handcuffed to her bed.

As they wait for news, Hecuba rails against her fate, the death of her sons, the loss of her daughter Polyxena (who she exchanged for the corpse of her son, Hector) and curses Helen, that “bitch on heat”, as the cause of the war. She is interrupted, encouraged and disparaged by the Chorus who is more concerned about her own fate and that of her unborn baby.

Louise Brealey gives a finely nuanced performance, portraying the three women, Cassandra, Andromache and Helen, who are all celebrated and cursed for their beauty.  Hecuba’s own failings as a mother are brought to the fore when Cassandra comes to bid her farewell before she is shipped off to become Agamemnon’s concubine. Although acknowledging Apollo’s curse, Bird suggests that Cassandra’s madness (here translated as adolescent hyper-activity, a surfeit of love and a tendency to cut herself) is as much a result of Hecuba’s neglect.

The victors’ lust for vengeance is underlined when Hector’s widow, Andromache, arrives nursing her baby and Jon Foster’s messenger, Talthybius, tells her to prepare for her infant son’s death.

Jason Southgate’s detailed design is impressive — the cartoon animals stencilled on the walls, the teddy bears and board games deliberately jar with the recent murder and mayhem (and the violence that is to follow).

In Christopher Haydon’s gloriously ambitious and stunningly realised production, the full horror of war is brought home in the play’s shocking conclusion, reminding us that the real victims are the women and children left behind.

Running at the Gate Theatre until 15 December 2012

Originally published in Theatreworld