There are a few things that immediately set this production of The Suppliant Women apart.
One is the libation at the start – a local politician is invited to use a bottle of wine to anoint the thrust-forward, open stage. Real politician. Real wine. The names of those who have contributed financially to the play are read out at the start. Real names. Real numbers. And the chorus, being the main protagonist, are local women. Real women. All that, and the text predates Christianity by around 500 years. Real old.
So are we in ancient Greece or contemporary Edinburgh? Where this work succeeds is that it convincingly places us in both.
Although this is an ancient text, it’s been updated by David Greig’s new treatment, and the language, although still ritualistic, rhyming and rhythmic, describes situations all too familiar to us today. Refugees arriving on foreign shores across the Mediterranean, seeking asylum from oppression in their native country, and meeting with a fearful and ambiguous reception on foreign soil.
The echoes coming from the past show us how hopelessly timeless the fate of the refugee, and specifically the female refugee is: they know they must respect the rules of the culture they are arriving into, they are careful to hold the decorated branches that show they are suppliant carefully in their left hands, and they know that by taking refuge in a place of worship, they are in relative safety from all parties, but they’re still just buying time.
As in the days when this play was written, the spectacle we see unfold is played by a local, amateur chorus along with a small group of professional actors taking over the other major roles. But this looks and feels very far from an amateur production. The voices of the women, their singing, their beautifully choreographed movement, their sheer energy and presence make this a very remarkable spectacle.
The suppliant women hardly leave the stage during the play’s one and a half hours – they are always present, as a strident, loud and fierce presence, or stealthily moving around in near-silence and near-darkness. The raw simplicity of the staging adds to the power of this performance, with the ominous sound and sight of the approaching Egyptians seeking to reclaim the women particularly effective.
And it is this constant presence, and the horrifying resonance of these ancient issues being just as relevant today that so much impresses the viewer. These women are seeking freedom from forced marriage and have thrown themselves across the sea to a foreign country to seek liberty. And of course the King of the land where they arrive has a decision to make – to welcome the asylum seekers could bring war, to reject them will bring shame. He decides to try out a novel way of making decisions – by asking the citizens to vote, in a bold new experiment called “democracy”.
There’s a haunting quality to the music and the singing, a noble spirit heard in the cadence and rhythm, rhyme and verses that holds your attention here, and gives you a tingle up the spine that’s rarely felt in live theatre. You feel transported to an ancient place, and at the same time, you’re thinking about the currency of the idea of voting on accepting migrants (only today a majority of the 45% who voted in Hungary voted against accepting EU quotas for migrants into their country).
This is a performance with a firm political agenda – it’s for the rights and equality of women and asylum seekers, for the importance of democracy, for the recognition of diversity, for the importance of respect for different cultures – both in terms of the culture one comes from and the culture one meets in a foreign land. At the end, the potential clash of cultures is shown as a real possibility, but the women emerge triumphant, vocal, and strong – and there was a palpable stunned silence when the action ended, before a sold-out full house rose to give generous, sustained and well-deserved applause to all of the performers.
This is a spectacle that stays with you beyond the night of the performance, because the ideas and the moral issues are as relevant and vital today as they were when Aeschylus first wrote about them so long ago. And so you wonder to yourself if you and your fellow citizens have really learned anything in all that time? Like all great art, this forces us to look hard at ourselves, and ask big, tough, difficult questions.
This is a deliberate choice by David Greig as the first production under his stewardship of the Lyceum. It is not a safe choice, and it is a play and an issue that has been, and is, often avoided and set aside. This seems a bold statement of intent for the future of the Lyceum – and it looks like it’s going to be challenging the norm, becoming more inclusive of its surrounding community, and won’t being afraid to talk about issues that are difficult to talk about. Bring it on, Aeschylus, bring it on.
Click to book tickets for The Suppliant Women today
Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
1-15 October 7:30pm 1hr35m approx