Caroline Bird’s The Trojan Women (after Euripides): an informal review

Today I went to see a performance at the Gate Theatre in London: Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women.

Before you start reading:

Firstly, I do not intend the following to be a formal review. Instead, these are merely some of my thoughts on the performance which I saw and very much enjoyed today.

Secondly, I admit that the following may be considered a “spoiler” in the modern sense of the word! In the tradition of dramatic productions in the festivals of ancient Athens, the audience would have been aware of the myth-based plot before seeing the production. However, if any readers wish to approach the Gate Theatre’s production of The Trojan Women as they would most modern productions, without prior knowledge of the plot, then stop reading now!

“You can’t see the state of the city but I can. Let me give you an artistic impression.”

The Gate Theatre is small and intimate, with what I instinctively felt to be the atmosphere of an underground war bunker (perhaps exacerbated by the distant but audible clangs and screams before the performance began). The set is a battered hospital ward. Screens are attached to the walls – and it is from these screens that the prologue, by the gods Poseidon and Athena, is delivered. Despite the intermittent flickering scenes of destruction, the tone adopted by the gods is laconic and offhand, perhaps even bored, with an air of detachment emphasised by the sunglasses adopted by Poseidon and the gods’ laughter at Cassandra’s plight. The implicit idea that the gods do not care about the sufferings of mortals is, I feel, true to the spirit of Euripides’ original text. In the original, the gods’ diplomatic discussion of the punishment of the sacrilegious Greeks may lead the audience to wonder if they truly understand the misery endured by the inhabitants of the city. Although they choose to punish the Greeks on the return journey, this is not explicitly for committing the sin of waging war – merely for violating the sanctity of Athena’s temple while sacking Troy. Indeed, in Bird’s adaptation, the very fact that the gods appear on screens emphasises their detachment.

“I can feel my misery in my knees, weighing in my gut, running up my spine, when I cough I cough sadness.”

The character of Hecuba is portrayed with various contrasting emotions: bitterness at her fate (“a slave to the Greeks who massacred my people”), wistfulness as she remembers her previous life in Troy, and haughty arrogance (“The queen of Troy, widowed, filthy, dressed in worse than rags…”). Overall, I think Hecuba is notable for the force of her character – despite the destructive effect of grief, and the loss in social station she has experienced, she retains the powerful and dynamic personality of a monarch. I felt that the regal demeanour of Hecuba was brought across extremely convincingly by Dearbhla Molloy. This is particularly visible when she delivers a prophecy regarding the baby Astyanax’s future: “…one day he will be a noble warrior like his father…and lead an army to triumph against the Greeks”. She even delivers orders to his mother Andromache, with her emotions distorted by hatred of the Greeks: “You have to fill his heart with hate…his life’s purpose is to avenge us.” The hopes and dreams of Hecuba, not to mention the emotions of Andromache, are conclusively destroyed when Talthybius takes Astyanax away to his death, yet Hecuba still has enough psychological tenacity to express violent loathing for Helen after the entry of Menelaus.

“Sometimes I think I’m not a woman. I’m just the idea of a woman.”

Particularly fascinating in this adaptation is the Chorus, who is cast as a single woman, pregnant and manacled to a hospital bed. This carries various implications for the functioning of the tragedy. In an original Greek tragedy (insofar as it is possible to summarise the role of the Chorus in a single sentence!) the Chorus as a group would set the tone for the drama, exploring the emotional register and demonstrating to the audience the range of emotions that might be felt. Having a single character, albeit a nameless one, perform this role exposes the overall tone of the tragedy to more violent fluctuations, which I thought were extremely effective in expressing the emotional turmoil of the Trojan women. For example, the screams of the Chorus in childbirth towards the end of the tragedy adds a sharp note of danger as Helen wins over Menelaus, and (even more acutely) when the women are dragged into the van to be taken away. Moreover, the pregnant and imprisoned state of the Chorus makes her vulnerable throughout the tragedy, allowing the audience to sympathise with her perhaps more than they would with the less personal group Chorus of an original tragedy.

“Humanity has let me down. Faith is delusion.”

In this adaptation, there is rarely unity between the women in the hospital ward. The tension between Hecuba and the Chorus is palpable from the beginning, in part due to Hecuba’s acute awareness of her former social rank and class: Hecuba treats the Chorus with a tone of ironic contempt. The scene in which Cassandra is present is fraught throughout, in part due to her volatility. Later, Hecuba’s loathing for Helen (“she feasts on men’s souls, she wrecks lives”) is barely restrained. At the beginning of the tragedy, the forced cheerfulness of Talthybius (the Greek herald) exacerbates the tension; later, I think that his duties (particularly taking away Astyanax to be killed) begin to take an emotional toll on him, culminating in his nearly vomiting over the corpse of Astyanax. Indeed, one striking innovation of this adaptation is to juxtapose the retrieval of Astyanax’s corpse with the birth of the Chorus’ baby – the conclusive finality and despair of one, coupled with the agony and (the audience suspects) futility of the other, can almost summarise what makes both war and this tragedy as bleak as they are.

“Lifeless. Extinct. Gone to a better place.”

All in all, I found the Gate Theatre’s performance of Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women hugely impressive. Whether modernisation of Greek tragedy is necessary or even acceptable in general is a fascinating area of debate, but in this case I feel that it is successful. The video screens depicting the gods emphasises the separation between the divine plane and the prolonged sufferings of the victims in Troy, while some modern aspects of Menelaus’ language (for example: “my spanner is tinkering an open wound” add a further dimension of horror to the narrative. Even Helen’s dressing while dancing to music from her iPod created the impression of a slightly trivial nature. So, for all the reasons given above, I would recommend this performance very highly.

(All quotations above are taken from the text of Caroline Bird’s adaptation)

P.S. London is fortunate enough to have two Greek tragedies showing in theatres at the moment! Next week, I will see a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre.

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