Barrie Kosky often divides audiences but in this impressive production of The Women of Troy everything that is original, astute and poetic about Kosky shines through. Kosky, the imaginative theatre maker is at his best.
Working with Tom Wright’s significantly reduced text Kosky transforms The Women of Troy into a play for our times without diluting Euripides’ anti-war message. Wright’s lean and contemporary adaptation makes the narrative and intentions of this Greek classic crystal clear. In the hands of Kosky and Wright, The Women of Troy remains a clarion call for compassion.
In The Women of Troy Euripides unequivocally criticises two fundamental tenets of the ancient Greek civilisation: their brutal warrior culture and their right to objectify and dehumanise not only their enemies, but also Greek women.
In Euripides’ view, the Greek king Menelaus undertook the siege of Troy out of sheer bloody pride. Helen was his possession and he wanted her back, not so much because he loved her but because she was his.
Greek citizens would not have enjoyed being confronted with their brutality by Euripides, having sacked island of Melos in a similar manner only the previous year.
Kosky similarly challenges his contemporary audience with this production. The setting is strongly reminiscent of the US prisoner of war camp in Iraq, Abu Ghraib – a place and a war in which Australians are deeply implicated. In Kosky’s version, we are the conquering Greeks.
The play begins after the sacking of Troy. It deals with the misery of Hecuba, Queen of Troy (Robyn Nevin) and the other women of the royal household (Cassandra, Andromache and Helen – all played by Melita Jurisic).
Not only has Troy has been brutally obliterated but the women have each been consigned as a concubine/slave to one of the conquering heroes.
Euripides’ The Women of Troy is possibly the original anti-war play in the western canon. Hecuba’s description of the devastation of Troy is a famous depiction of the terrible effects of war and, in particular, the terrible treatment of women in war.
Robyn Nevin’s Hecuba reverberates with shell shocked vehemence and powerlessness at the brutality of the invasion and the loss of her city. Her daughter, the virgin prophet Cassandra dementedly rages against her fate.
Her daughter in law, pregnant Andromache tragically faces not only her own fate but also the heartless murder of her small son (alternatively played by Narek Armaganian/Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke).
Finally, full of rationalisations, Helen has to face Menelaus, her husband (Arthur Dignam) and return with him to Greece to be publicly executed.
Melita Jurisic is dazzling as she handles the respective madness, maternal sorrow and femme fatale duplicity of her three characters.
One by one the women are consigned to Greece. Like cargo, they are each pushed into a cardboard box which is gaffer taped up. These boxes are by far the most eloquent and harrowing image in the production underlining the dehumanising effect of war.
Much of Kosky’s version is sung. Three women comprise the chorus (Natalie Gamsu, Queenie Van De Zandt and Jennifer Vuletic). Together with Nevin and Jurisic they make a magnificent and extraordinarily moving five-woman choir supported by pianist Daryl Wallace.
The music is deeply affecting. The women sing an eclectic range of songs including haunting eastern European folk songs, madrigals, Mozart and Bizet and the war time stoic’s favourite, When You’re Smiling. They sing to raise themselves above their experiences and as an expression of their terrible grief. It has a similar effect upon the audience, alleviating the intensity of the action.
Alice Babidge’s set and costumes are designed to evoke the prisoner of war camp. The stark set is bare: just metal lockers piled high against the back wall, a filthy carpet and a loud speaker. Hecuba and the chorus of women are stripped to their long underwear; their hair has been crudely cut and they are covered in blood and bruises. Only the characters played by Jurisic are dressed to reveal their nature.
Lighting designer, Damien Cooper reinforces the starkness using only the fluorescent light overhead and a bank of stark floodlights from stage left.
The sound design by David Gilfillan is the most unsettling. He has created an ambient background track of a fusion of screams of torture and banal popular music – the sort played by U.S. soldiers in both Vietnam and Iraq. Ear splitting gun shots sporadically throughout the performance. It is the soundtrack of contemporary war.
In his recent Sydney lecture, “Who needs Greek” visiting Cambridge Professor of Classics, Professor Simon Goldhill suggested that we return to the classics to study how we are the same and how we differ.
When it comes to Greek theatre, this is easier said than done. In lesser hands much is often lost in translation. Kosky’s The Women of Troy, however, masterfully delivers a powerful lesson for today from our distant cultural past.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
THE WOMEN OF TROY
Adapted by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright
Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company
Season: Saturday 20 September To 26 October 2008
Twilights: Mon 22 Sept, Mon 29 Sept, Mon 6 Oct, Sun 19 Oct, Sun 26 Oct 6:30pm
Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday 8pm
Matinee: Wednesday 1, 8, 15 October 1pm, Wednesday 22 October 12:15pm, Saturdays 2pm
Night With Actors: Monday 6 October At 6.30pm Post-Show Discussion With The Cast And Creative Team
Tickets: $77 / $62 Concession Matinee $68 / $56 Concession
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 / Ticketek 132 849 / sydneytheatre.com.au/troy