We arguably owe all theatre to the Greeks. Drama, satire, comedy – all exports from a culture that existed some two-thousand five hundred years ago. You might then assume that an opportunity to watch a play written at the dawn of theatre would offer a reminder of some timeless format. This is not the case. Though much does transcend the millennia that have passed, the audience has to adjust to a chorus-based format that they may not be familiar with.
The chorus of suppliant women are at the centre of this piece of theatre, and they do not leave the stage for the entire duration of the show. Remarkably (and to the Greek model) the chorus was also made up of young local volunteers. Now was this effective? Not entirely. The women most often sing in chorus, and at many points make synchronised movements. Despite a burning ritualistic heat, it was here that the lack of experience showed. This was not helped by the costuming, or lack thereof.
The women all wore their own clothes, a decision likely made by Grieg, the Artistic Director, to emphasise the atemporality of the narrative, the familiarity of the plight of these women. However, this was not without downfalls. The overall effect was confused, and in some ways diminished the transportive quality. Simple white smocks may have been more effective and might have emphasised the women as a unified body.
This aside, there were some moments of beauty and clarity. For example, when the women are sheltering in the temple by night, taunted by their marauding betrothed, light was used to great effect. Each of the women held a tealight, a symbol of hope in darkness, reminiscent of modern candle-lit vigils for refugees. The men bore flaming torches, evocative of primal human nature. As they were chased the women moved around the space, the men moving accordingly, creating a quite beautiful effect in the darkened theatre.
Most of the sung parts by the women took the form of prayers, and though calls to now dead deities could have emphasised the antique nature of the piece, the prayers instead showed an internal dialogue of visceral desperation. The piece was inventively reimagined and does have a startling relevance today – the plight of refugees and the uncertainty of the countries taking them has never been more relevant, it is only a shame that the execution was in places disappointing.