Young Vic Theatre Autumn 2017
In its modest way this is one of the most exciting and memorable theatrical experiences I've had in a very long time. It's only on for a couple of weeks, and I urge you to see it.
The 2500-year-old play by Aeschylus, here in a strong translation by David Greig, shows a boatload of Egyptian women who have fled to Greece to escape unwanted forced marriages at home.
The Greek king wavers a bit, because offering them asylum virtually guarantees war with Egypt. But, backed by the Greek populace, he makes the right choice. (The play was first in a trilogy, the other parts of which have been lost, and so it concludes with some loose ends and cliffhangers, but it stands alone very well.)
There are many contemporary resonances to the play, from questions of feminism – Greig translates the penultimate line as 'Give equal power to women' – to images of refugees crossing to Mediterranean. But the simple story of a man and a culture being asked to do the right thing and passing the test stands on its own.
For all the resonances and dramatic power of the text, the real joys of this show lie in its production.
The Actors Touring Company, producing with the Young Vic and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, have cast the play almost entirely with local amateurs drawn from each city they've played in.
Don't stop reading here, please! Carefully trained by a company team led by Mary King, the 27 young women and girls from Southwark who make up the Chorus of suppliant women – there are separate groups playing soldiers and Greek citizens – are brilliant.
Let me be absolutely clear about this – I do not mean 'brilliant for amateurs'. I mean brilliant, constantly exciting to watch and listen to.
A bit of pedantry – scholars have long known that the Chorus in Greek drama moved in some way and used music in some way, but nobody knows exactly how.
Director Ramin Gray, choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies and composer John Browne have chosen solutions that are beautiful in themselves while serving the play in evocative ways.
To a score that is largely percussive the Chorus move about the stage constantly, weaving snakelike patterns or expressing their determination in close-order drill that hints at African tribal dancing.
Other moments refer physically to European folk dances, classical ballet, Broadway musicals and even hip-hop, all blended seamlessly so that even as the Chorus's movement is filled with surprises it remains all of a piece.
In the same way a choric delivery style that ranges from natural speech through rhythmic sing-song recitation and chanting to melodic singing and operatic harmonies never clashes with itself while creating an air of ceremony and otherworldliness.
And all of this is performed by young women in their street clothes, who combine the energy of the dedicated amateur with the high polish of committed drilling and the unrestrained commitment of the thoroughly professional.
The Chorus is onstage and central through the entire play, listening and reacting in the few moments they are not dominating, and they hold the stage with a star player's authority.
There are only three professional actors in the cast. Gemma May handles some of the most difficult lines as the Chorus Leader, while Omar Ebrahim brings warmth and wisdom to the role of the ship captain who is the women's father figure.
And Oscar Batterham finds all the humanity and even humour in the momentarily wavering Greek king, and then all the courage and dignity of a man fortified by knowing he is doing right.
But keep your eyes on the local girls of the Chorus. Forget that they're amateurs – you will, very quickly – and revel in the energy, grace and dramatic power they bring to the play.
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