Approaching the yuletide, it's not all glitter, mince pies and hot toddies at our National Theatre. No, it's almost all-out war. The exceptional 'War Horse' has been joined in battle - or the aftermath of it, at least - by Katie Mitchell's production of 'Women of Troy'. Though they both focus on the horrors of war, there's no sign of the relief or hope at the end of the latter as there is at the end of the former. In that sense, they are very different plays indeed. But it's hard not to discerne some controlling mind behind the decision to stage two plays about war at Christmas time. And in my view at least, that's no bad thing – we need to remember that war is a thing of the present, as well as of the past.
'Women of Troy' requires that you try to recall your school days. In particular, the story we all leant about the giant horse the Greeks built in order to con the Trojans into thinking they had given up the prospect of winning the lengthy war, and had slipped back to the golden beaches of Greece to do a spot of sunbathing.
The play actually starts a bit after the Greeks have tumbled out of their horse during the dead of night and sacked the entire city of Troy in almost the flash of a sword. What we discover is a group of wealthy women who have been captured by the Greeks and are awaiting their fate at the hands of the victors. Among them is Queen Hecuba whose sons have all been killed in battle, and whose daughters are about to become slaves. Surrounded by her entourage of ladies more used to eating posh food and swilling down fine wines, Hecuba berates her captors with a controlled dignity and composure, even though she has to see her daughter dragged off to slavery and has to prepare her baby grandson's body for burial.
The women wear slinky, glamorous evening dresses which seem to fit with the era of Europe in the 1930s/ 40s, but the men wear suits and anoraks. And mobile phones appear, and the lifts are relatively modern. The sum of the parts gives us a setting that seems mixed up, but given that the tale of the Greek-Trojan war is generally considered to be mythical, that doesn't seem to matter, though purists might wish for a more traditional setting back in the mists of time.
Bunnie Christie's fine design sets the tragedy in what appears to be an underground car park at a port. It's all corrugated iron and concrete, with massive sliding doors and industrial looking lifts. Detailed almost to the point of obsession, it's an immensely impressive set which encloses the entire Lyttleton acting area. The actual feel of it, however, is dingy, clinical and depressing.
One of the key elements in Katie Mitchell's directorial style is sound. There's lots of it - background drones and hums, seagulls, ships' horns, explosions etc. And, on the other hand, there's music too ranging from 1940s big band jazz to more haunting classical stuff from a broken down radio. Excellent and thoughtful though the soundscape is, there are times when one has to strain to hear what is being said on stage, even though it's pretty obvious most of the time what is happening. But that said, the carefully designed sound certainly adds to the overall impact of the play, as do the numerous special effects including massive bomb blasts and fires.
Led by Kate Duchêne as Queen Hecuba, the ensemble cast is convincing even though were some occasions when, fighting the sound, they were a little inaudible. Duchêne is suitably imposing, authoritative and dignified as Hecuba, and Sinead Matthews' display of madness – though it went on a little too long – was poigant and sensitive.
Mitchell seems to have made a deliberate decision not to let any of the women cry - at least I can't remember any of them crying. Cassandra behaves oddly – though she has some of the most observant and condemnatory lines. And when Andromache learns that her baby is to be thrown from the battlements of the city, she's distraught to say the least. But even so, neither of them breaks down in tears. The implication, I presume, is that women are made of sterner stuff, and all the playing seems to suggest that too. Mitchell may well be right.
It doesn't take the mind of a criminal genius to work out that the suffering endured by the women of Troy is still being endured by female victims of military action today. The sack of Troy might be mythological, but wars still rage, causing unendurable suffering to millions. It's a bitter irony that, in spite of the brilliant minds that conjure up the technical gadgets that will be puring out of our stockings this Christmas, we still can't actually focus other brilliant minds on settling disputes with our neighbours peacefully, or keeping our noses out of other peoples' affairs which provokes most wars in the first place. And that's partly where 'Women of Troy' takes its stand. But it's also more about the suffering of women in particular, and how their dignity and courage stands out amidst the carnage of war.
At just over 75 minutes, 'Women of Troy' is short, but it's certainly not sweet. It's a harrowing and heartbreaking scenario that is difficult and unsettling to take. You simply can't leave this play without being moved. It might not exactly be your choice of play in the run-up to the festivities and you may find Katie Mitchell's style intellectually demanding, but it will certainly give you far more to think about than Cinderella!
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Katie Mitchell has recreated a classic Greek tragedy, rendering its images of captivity and terror in terms variously ancient, contemporary and magical." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Stunningly imaginative account." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "While I admired the energy and skill of Mitchell's production, it left my emotions untouched. The play itself is astonishing." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Mitchell’s work has always left me hot or cold...But, for the first time, this imaginatively brilliant director has marooned me between temperatures."
Production photo by Stephen Cummiskey