The Suppliant Women at Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is a bit like looking through a window into our long distant past and seeing if we recognise in our modern lives any of the people of that distant time.
Written roughly 2,500 years ago, this work (the first and only surviving part of three stories) by Aeschylus follows the daughters of Danaus (Omar Ebrahim) as they flee from their soon to be enforced marriages to their Egyptian cousins, over the sea to the Greek city state of Argos to seek refuge there. Their request for refuge leaves King Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham) in a no win situation for if he turns the women away he risks the wrath of the Gods, if he lets them stay he risks the wrath of the people of Argos and war with Egypt to reclaim the women. The people must decide, and a democratic vote (a new concept) will give him the answer he needs. This work in fact is the first known play to mention democracy and show it at work.
A lot of background research has gone into this production, and as far as possible director Ramin Gray and writer David Grieg have recreated the stylistic forms and performance traditions of a work of this period. Composer and musical director John Browne has also gone to enormous lengths to recreate the likely music , sound and metrics of the original work (not easy when you are working in English and not ancient Greek).
Keeping to the original stylised formats of the period, we start with thanks to all the patrons of the work and make an offering of wine to Dionysus the God of the grape harvest. The traditional form of the Chorus with Chorus leader Gemma May then take up the story in a very structured form. As would have been the case originally, the chorus itself is made up of volunteers (citizens).
Part of what makes this play work for me is the way that set designer Lizzie Clachan has extended the stone floor sacred temple in which the women take refuge out into the theatre (requiring a few rows of seats to be taken out). This breaks up the usual space between audience and stage and allows the chorus to become almost part of the audience.
Even after 2,500 years, there are still words of relevance here with lessons for us today...protection of the weak and oppressed, a safe haven for those who ask, the rights of the individual women and many more elements here are still being brought to stage now by contemporary writers. It seems that there is much we recognise in ourselves looking through this “time tunnel”.
There seems to be part of the human condition that requires to tell stories and have stories told to us, and like all good stories, you get pulled right into this one. Part of the skill to do that lies not only with our principal cast members who were all very good here, but also the large community chorus members who have given up so much of their free time to this performance.
Much of the atmosphere of this work though is down to the music too, and the playing for the first time in this work of a reconstructed twin pipe Aulos – an ancient instrument that requires enormous technical skills and circular breathing skills of the player. Percussion playing also is a large part of this sound...between them a mixture somewhere between sacred music and contemporary of its time. It would have been nice if the two musicians could somehow have been on stage and not up on the balcony though as I think some of the audience may have heard, but not seen them.
This was also one of those times when presenting a classical work like this in present day clothes actually worked better than trying to “period costume” the production. Somehow a stage full of ancient Greek costumed performers would have looked so fake here.
Review by Tom King