The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester;
I was quite wary about seeing this production. I wanted to like it but quite frankly I was concerned that the linking of a 2500 year old Greek play and our current refugee crisis might end up seeming forced or rather too worthy. As The Lord Mayor of Manchester joins the choir of local volunteers to give the traditional thanksgiving I was intrigued by this piece of theatrical archaeology. The libation wine is poured slowly and evenly around Lizzie Clachan’s stark breezeblock stage; then the choir re enter with their suppliant branches forming a human boat sailing gracefully into Argos. Exquisite pure harmonies flood the space and I’m hooked.
Written by Aeschylus; this new version by David Grieg opened his first season as Artistic Director at The Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. His intention to use theatre as a “democratic space” works well in a space like The Royal Exchange. Here the stage is often crowded but movement remains fluid and effective – perhaps a clever nod to how many countries can adapt successfully to accommodate refugees should they chose to.
The women sing in unison as they beseech King Pelagrus to heed their request for sanctuary reminding him that Argos is home to their ancestors Io who later sought sanctuary in Egypt and to Zeus; and reminding the audience that migration of people is central to our survival as a species. The local choir of 26 young women represent the 50 suppliant daughters of Danaos fleeing Egypt to avoid forced marriage to their 50 cousins. The central dilemma is “if we help we bring trouble if we don’t we invite shame”. This is a democracy so this King asks his people to decide the fate of these young women who have sung so passionately for their right to choose virginity over forced marriage. Sanctuary is granted but there will eventually be a heavy cost as the proprietary, prospective husbands sail into Argos.
This is a play about what do we do when we exercise choice. Are we selfish or altruistic; and either way is there always a price to pay? Beyond the issues of our stance on forced marriage or the refugee situation are other murkier issues that remind us of how complex the decision making process is. These are educated high born women of Egypt seeking asylum from forced marriage. They expect that asylum regardless of the risk to the citizens of Argos who face the fury of The Egyptians. They are shocked when the citizens suggest local marriages which would of course bring fresh blood and new wealth to the local community. It would seem that these steadfast virgins are somewhat disingenuous to the reality that in this life we rarely get something for nothing.
Director Ramin Gray ensures this production is bold and rhythmic and effective. The clever use of ancient instruments, staccato clapping and singing that beguiles, exults and wails laments invite the audience to start to breathe with the performance. Choreographer Sasha Milovic Davies and Movement Director Josephine Hepplewhite do an amazing job of ensuring that the very simple staging remains fluid and gloriously memorable. The human boat moves like it is on water and the simple use of the women’s scarves to form the bovine shape of Io is magical. Gemma May Rees as chorus leader soars vocally and is a luminous presence on stage as she leads the sisterhood of brightly clad suppliants.
It is however the chorus of local volunteers who are the living flesh of this performance. They are our teenage daughters or sisters or pupils clad like Greenham Common protesters or fans of The Levellers. I suspect their vigour and energy will leave a echo in this space long after the play moves on to another city; I’m sure Aeschylus would approve.