Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women, a 2,500-year-old play about refugees, promises to be both shockingly relevant to our times and startlingly strange in its performance. By Mark Brown
When, in May of this year, acclaimed playwright David Greig announced his first season as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, there was widespread excitement about his choices. Perhaps the greatest appreciation, and surprise, was reserved for his programming of The Suppliant Women by the great, Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus.
Although we know Aeschylus, on account of master works such as The Oresteia and Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Women is far less familiar to modern theatregoers. That’s because, as the only surviving part of a trilogy, it is very rarely performed.
Yet, telling the story of The Daniads, 50 Egyptian women who seek refuge in the Greek city of Argos, it could hardly be more resonant with our times.
Greig has written a new adaptation of the drama for a co-production by the Lyceum and the London-based Actors Touring Company (ATC). As he says, when I meet him in Edinburgh, the play “feels as if it could have been written yesterday.”
Indeed, as he began reading the play, the playwright found himself astonished by just how close this foundation myth of Ancient Argos is to the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean: “One of the opening lines goes: ‘We are women of Egypt, neighbours of Syria, who left the Nile on a boat.'”
The Lyceum production brings together the same team who created the 2013 play The Events. In addition to Greig as writer, Ramin Gray of ATC directs, while composer John Browne creates the music.
The common currency between the three is an interest in the theatre chorus. “The chorus [who represent the titular refugees] is the protagonist” in the play, Greig tells me. “That’s unusual in Greek theatre. In fact, it’s unusual in theatre in general.”
As with The Events, the new production, which will tour to Belfast and Newcastle-upon-Tyne after its Lyceum performances, is built around a chorus of local performers. In each city the show will feature an amateur chorus of 50 women who have volunteered for a pretty intensive period of training. This is, says Greig, “the Ancient Greek model”, in which an amateur, well-trained chorus interacted with professional actors.
The great excitement about Aeschylus’s play for Greig is that, when returned to its dramatic origins, it is a very different proposition from the kind of modern play one might expect to see written about the migration crisis.
“Ancient Greek work generally, and this play in particular, are pre-Judeo-Christian and pre-Hollywood”, he says. “The Greeks ruthlessly counterpose thesis and antithesis, and they refuse to make things easy for the audience.”
Most significantly, that means The Suppliant Women does not have a comforting, redemptive resolution. Instead, the play requires its audience to face up to some stark realities regarding human societies and democracy.
The story of The Daniads was a well-known piece of folklore in the Athens of 463 BC. For Aeschylus’s audience the story came from a distant past.
In the play the King of Argos is faced with what he thinks is an irresolvable moral and political conundrum. On the one hand, he fears that his people are so xenophobic that allowing the refugee women into the city will lead to civil war.
On the other, he is troubled by the morality of refusing them asylum. Barring the door to the Egyptians would, he says, risk enraging the gods and bringing pestilence upon Argos.
Although the second and third parts of Aeschylus’s trilogy are lost to us, we know the remainder of the narrative from surviving fragments of the texts and from contemporary accounts, by the theatre critics of the day, among others.
Greig believes that the Lyceum audience “needs to know what the Greek audience would have known” about the story. “I want our audience to enjoy the play, but with the ironies that the Greeks would have experienced”, he says. Consequently, Lyceum patrons can expect additional material, written by Greig, that places the drama in the context of the wider narrative.
For Greig, Gray and Browne, presenting such a little-performed classical play is an opportunity to “revisit Greek theatre as an experience in music, rhythm, ritual and strangeness.” This is particularly true of the use of the aulos, the Ancient Greek double pipe instrument which, Gray believes, has not been heard since Aeschylus’s day.
Greig acknowledges that there is “a risk” in trying to return the play – chorus, ritual, aulos and all – to its Ancient performative roots. “I don’t know how people will take it. We will not try to make it familiar.
“Our theory is that if we honour the play’s foreignness [from 21st-century theatre] then the audience will experience how an utterly Ancient culture can speak to us across 2,500 years.”
The Suppliant Women is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, October 1-15. For more information, visit: lyceum.org.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 25, 2016
© Mark Brown