Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Women of Troy, National Theatre

Review: Women of Troy, National Theatre

Firmly located in the naturalistic setting of a bulky iron holding bay, Katie Mitchell’s reimagining of Euripides’ Trojan Women is brutally effective as a visual translation of a classic text. Mitchell does not simply place the text in a contemporary situation, she immerses it so fully in modern warfare that almost every carefully considered image hits its target with a destructive poignancy.

Set in the aftermath of the destruction of Troy, the play details the plights of the surviving wives and daughters of the city’s leaders – now prisoners of war, soon to be its spoils – as they await their division. Particular focus lands upon the hoarse wailing madness of Cassandra (Sinead Matthews) and the tear-stained loss of Andromache (Anastasia Hille) as her child is torn from her arms, all overseen by Kate Duchêne’s Hecuba.

Mitchell’s direction never once lets us lose sight of the impropriety of these women’s unfitting situation. Within the hollow hulk of Bunny Christie’s set, the women, wearing ball gowns and high heels, seem totally out of place and unequipped to cope. These are the tottering women of Troy, torn from their victory ball: they dance, at times softly at others manically, their arms embracing absent husbands.

Despite appearances, coping mechanisms emerge. With every metallic clunk warning of male intrusion into their space, the women shelter, pack-like, behind their queen. They smoke, they pace, they reminisce. Together they throw themselves into tasks, such as the preparation for burial of Andromache’s son, thrown from the city’s walls by the Greek victors. The diligence and determination with which the women conjure dignity from the horrific is beautifully crafted in the final image of a tiny battered corpse, shrouded in silk and littered with petals, in a FedEx-like box.

It is through such contrasts that Mitchell exposes the desolation of war. There is a great poignancy here, though this never becomes an overwhelming pity. Perhaps this is the result of the text sitting somewhat uncomfortably on top of the action, leaving the women entrenched in the present at the expense of their bleaker futures. Perhaps it is due to the metaphorical raising of the fourth wall for the choral odes, which draws attention to the oddity of its reinstatement for most of the action.

In spite of Mitchell’s distancing techniques, Duchêne draws us into Hecuba with the steely dignity befitting of a monarch and the wrenching torment of a mother. Hers is a complex performance, drifting through pride and grief, humiliation and bewilderment, summed up in the defiant wipe of her mouth following an enforced kiss from Menelaus. It is Michael Gould’s civil servant Thalthybius, however, who supports the whole piece, gaining a sympathy from the audience as the bringer of bad news. There is a humanity to him, an embarrassed quality of shame, a slight bond with the women in his control. The slow, reasoned pace of his chase with Andromache, weaving around the room to protect her child, is heartrenching. As the piece ends, a lone-woman is left behind, reapplying her make-up as the sprinkler system slowly soaks her through. There are few more delicate images of hopelessness to be found.

Photograph: Stephen Cumminskey

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