Please note: this is a review of an earlier production of The Suppliant Women. The version that appears in the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety Theatre will use 50 volunteers from Dublin, and some parts of the play will be altered.
The Suppliant Women ★★★★
Grand Opera House, Belfast
Belfast International Arts Festival
Heartbreaking pictures haunt our television screens, night after night: small, creaky boats overloaded with people clinging together in the middle of a vast ocean, in a desperate bid to escape war, persecution and torture and seek asylum in a different, unknown continent.
This is one of the defining human crises of our time. Any playwright worth his or her salt would feel compelled to write a play on the subject.
Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek playwright Aeschylus did precisely that with The Suppliants, an almost-lost trilogy about the 50 daughters of Danaus, who set sail across the Mediterranean, fleeing forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins.
When the women reach the city state of Argos, they throw themselves on the mercy of the compassionate king Pelasgus. In an exemplary show of democracy, he puts their plight to his citizens, who vote overwhelmingly for the women to remain in safety among them, while suggesting that they might, in time, come round to more conventional ideas about marriage and family.
What is unusual about this trilogy – and this is the surviving first episode – is that the Chorus also comprises the leading characters. It is the beating heart of the play. That Chorus is different in every town the production visits as it is drawn from the local community.
The vast space of the Grand Opera House is stripped back to its bare brick structure with a paved performance square at centre-stage. When the performers appear – 15 young Belfast women dressed in colourful street clothes – they are dwarfed but not overcome by their surroundings. Though relatively small in number, their concentrated close harmonics and chants make a powerful, visceral impact.
David Greig, artistic director of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, has taken upon himself this stunning new translated version of Aeschylus' poetic tidal wave. Actors Touring Company director Ramin Grey and Cork-born composer John Browne add political acumen and visual and aural genius to Sasha Milavic Davies's choreography, which creates an ever-moving sea of swirls and knots.
Three professional performers, Oscar Batterham (Pelasgus), Omar Ebrahim (Danaos) and Gemma May (Chorus Leader), lend outstanding support, as do percussionist Ben Burton and Callum Armstrong, whose playing of the ancient Greek aulos weaves a spine-tingling atmosphere of sadness, despair and longing across a story which could have been written last week.