Theatre, feminism and democracy. David Greig’s new version of Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women has it all. As the first show at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre under Greig’s artistic directorship, it augers a commitment to following in the ancient tradition of placing theatre at the heart of civil life; as crucial to addressing urgent questions about contemporary citizenship.
In a reprise of Greig’s collaboration with director Ramin Gray and their exploration of community participation in the deeply moving and politically charged show, The Events, The Events, David Greig – Restoring my Faith in Theatre The Suppliant Women experiments with an ensemble of young women from the city of Edinburgh – untrained amateurs who have given their time and labour for free. That we can see ourselves ‘reflected in this strange and ancient mirror’ is palpable throughout: the refugee crisis, the post-Brexit voting out of Europe (by England, though not Scotland), and the current activist call to women’s rights are all in there, brought out of the Ancient-Greek scripting of comparable struggles.
What the suppliant women chorus in this ‘Athens of the North’ is their crossing of the seas from Egypt to Greece, seeking sanctuary from a sexually aggressive culture of masculinity. As refugees fleeing male persecution they take refuge in a temple of Argos; will they receive hospitality, or not? The grey-suited young King Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham) is faced with a dilemma: to grant sanctuary will be a declaration of war; refuse and the women have vowed to commit suicide in the temple, thus dishonouring the city and the gods. This is ‘not my fight’, he argues, but resolves to put the women’s plight to the democratic vote of the city. The women win their right to remain – a fragile victory, since from the East come the warrior ships of men to declare their rightful ‘ownership’ and claim back their ‘property’. Argos renews the women’s defence – enacted by another, smaller chorus of older, black-clad ‘wise women’, who on behalf of the city vow to continue the state’s protection. Ironically, that state of protection is also conditional upon the women’s acceptance of being marriageable goods. Thus, in a final note of persistent resistance, the suppliant chorus chants back: ‘give equal power to all women’.
Visceral and epic in the voicing of women’s equality, the feminist-politicising impulse of the show resides in the locally-drawn, city-based ensemble of young women. Their appearance resonates with the here-and-now (no uniform mimicking of an ancient garb, but a mix of casual, everyday wear); yet their unanswered call for equal citizenship is primordial. The choreographies (directed by Sasha Milavic Davies) are tribal: the left-handed arm-waving of suppliant branches; chants against male aggression that find their pulse in the rhythmic writing of Greig’s script, percussively punctuated and accompanied by the aulos (ancient wind instrument); and displays of black scarves that in one sequence are laid down on the stage to piece together a silhouette of the sacred cow from whom they claim maternal lineage.
Yet it is the logos of men that repeatedly speaks for and determines these young women’s lives, whether this is the benign patriarch (Omar Ebrahim) who accompanies them on their flight from the East, the sovereign power of Argos embodied in Pelasgos, or the warring faction of Egyptian soldiers. Thus, as the women’s final chant resounds around the Victorian Lyceum, the audience is left with the urgent question: when will the rights of all women be heard and listened to?
I can’t recommend it enough.