Our Student Ambassador for Bolton School, thirteen year old Liv Sample, recently enjoyed a performance of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, directed by Ramin Gray, with music and choreography from John Browne and Sasha Milavic Davies. She recounts the evening here:
“As we settle down in the magnificent yet intimate surroundings of the Royal Exchange Theatre in the heart of Manchester, a group of women dressed in casual, modern attire enter the orchestra, clutching branches, topped with rags of white plastic and paper. And then, in honour of Greek theatre of the past, the libation: with a speech from a senior member of the City Council reminding us of our civic pride and duty, followed by the splashing of red wine around the edges of the stage. Incense fills the air and the sound of the aulos and drum further set the scene. Over the following two hours, the chorus comprising more than thirty Mancunian women, completely hold our attention through word, song and dance in this extraordinary play.
The play is The Suppliant Women, written by Aeschylus in 423 BC, the first part of a lost trilogy about the arrival in Argos of a group of young women: asylum seekers from Egypt who risk life and limb by boarding a boat and setting sail across the Mediterranean. They are fleeing forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins and hoping to gain protection from the Greeks, their distant relatives in every sense.
The women are ancestors of the priestess Io, originally of Argos, and one of Zeus’ many mortal extramarital affairs; once the affair discovered, Io was transformed into a milky white cow and spent her days being attacked by a gadfly at the behest of vengeful Hera. At some point, she arrived in Egypt and her bloodline became that of the suppliants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these women now prefer to appeal to the goodwill of Io, Zeus and the king of Argos, Pelasgos, rather than throw their lot in with female goddesses such as Aphrodite or Hera.
Through a variety of often hypnotic odes, some telling the story of Io, some celebratory and others full of fear or anger, the women entreat King Pelasgos to protect them. Oscar Batterham dressed in a grey office suit, more CEO than magnificent king, plays Pelasgos with the bemused manner of a man who is literally between the devil and the deep blue sea. He appears intrigued, disorientated and judgemental in equal measure. Are these women Amazons? Syrians? Their appearance and demands are very un-Greek. He refuses to make the decision about letting them stay, preferring to seek a referendum from the Argive people, with clear reference to the democratic process. After a political campaign that wouldn’t look out of place if led by Mr Cameron and Osborne, the Argive people vote in favour of the women.
In quick response, the Egyptians storm into the temple of Zeus, the women’s sanctuary, in a brutal attempt to carry the women back to their cousins. This scene is beautifully staged, with flaming torches carried by the men contrasting with the soft glow of the women’s lamps as they plead to be rescued. The play ends with the supplicants retreating behind the city walls, with the support of Pelasgos. War and tragedy will follow, of that there is no doubt; but for now the women are safe. Whether they will ever be fully integrated into Argive society is another matter and the play ends on an unsettling note.
The most recognisable point that this production makes is of course about the heartbreaking mass movement of people across the Mediterranean : a phenomenon we are all too aware of these days. The white rags wound around the branches carried by the women may represent ragged sails after a long sea voyage and acts of surrender. But once these vulnerable women get to dry land, they do not hold back in their demands to Pelasgos. They are not above playing mind games with him- for example, threatening to adorn his temple with their own decorations- their hanged bodies-if he fails to grant them asylum. I can imagine how unnatural this all felt to the citizens of Greece when Aeschylus gave them their first taste of girl power- but he chickens out in the end by making sure that these women still seek and listen to advice from males, whether it be their father Danaos , Pelasgos or Zeus himself.
Every time I see a stage production of an Ancient Greek play, I am struck by the freshness of dialogue and the modern relevance of the ideas contained within the script. When I saw the image on the front of the programme for the Suppliant Women, I never expected that this play would be as much about gender and equality for women as about displaced people seeking help from a more open and tolerant society. So thank you ladies of the chorus, and Aeschylus, for a lesson enjoyably learned!”
**If after reading this blog you are tempted to see the production, a trip to London, to the Young Vic, will be required as the run is now over in the North West.