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The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic, London — a fierce, beautiful staging of Aeschylus’s drama

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The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic, London — a fierce, beautiful staging of Aeschylus’s drama

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Theatre

The Suppliant Women at the Young Vic, London — a fierce, beautiful staging of Aeschylus’s drama

A moving plea for equality and humanity is led by a chorus of young women from the local community

Defiant: 'The Suppliant Women' © Stephen Cummiskey

It ought to be outdated; it isn’t. In fact, it’s shockingly topical. Written two-and-a-half millennia ago, Aeschylus’s drama portrays a boatload of women who, fleeing forced marriage and rape, arrive on a foreign shore pleading for asylum. “Feel!” begs a woman, of her wavering host. Her voice seems to rage down the centuries, through countless conflicts, to our own sorry times. Delivered in a fierce, beautiful staging from Actors Touring Company, led by a chorus of local women, it is both alien and familiar: a defiant, moving plea for equality and humanity.

Aeschylus’s original is the first part of a tetralogy, the rest of which is lost. It tells of the daughters of Danaos, who escape enforced betrothal to their cousins and cross from Egypt to Argos, where they take refuge in the temple and plead with King Pelasgos for sanctuary. He, torn between principle and expediency, procrastinates: to refuse them is monstrous; to save them risks war with Egypt. Oscar Batterham, besuited and evasive, resembles many a vacillating politician. In the end he goes for a referendum.

David Greig’s new version of the text is ingenious, matching accessibility, propulsion and contemporaneity with a use of rhythm and repetition that preserves a sense of otherness. There is a ritual quality, too, to John Browne’s spare, atmospheric score, which deploys percussion and the wild, eerie tone of the aulos (an ancient double pipe) to shape the story and support the women’s words, part-sung, part-chanted.

Omar Ebrahim in 'The Suppliant Women' © Stephen Cummiskey

Ramin Gray’s production is both aurally and visually sculpted: he and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies create an ever-changing stage picture, as the young women flock like birds, rove free and wild, appear to dangle as if dead. Most striking of all is the startling transformation from their exuberant, confident dance of joy when they think they are saved, to their cowed, fearful state when they learn that they have been pursued. As their would-be rapists break into their sanctuary, they huddle together beneath black veils in the dark, their faces faint smudges illuminated by candlelight, while the men, clad in bright white, advance with flaming torches.

But what really makes this staging is the amateur chorus. Wherever the production has travelled, young women from the local community (27 at the Young Vic) have played the outsiders — the refugees in their fellow citizens’ midst. It’s a move that potently picks up on the civic role of theatre in ancient Greece: these women look like us; they come from among us; they could be us. The question of refuge, both ancient and global, becomes urgent and immediate in their hands. “The worries of women and exiles are endless,” they cry.

And, coached by Mary King and led by Gemma May, they are front and central. The men hold the power in the narrative; the women hold the power on stage, drumming the floor with their feet, filling the space with whirling colour, blazing with defiance and hope. Individually, they are vulnerable: no match for male muscle. As a chorus, they are tremendous.

★★★★☆

To November 25, youngvic.org

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