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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Women of Troy
Lyttelton Theatre     Winter 2007-2008

This is a bit of a disappointment.

Three years ago director Katie Mitchell staged a Greek tragedy (Iphegenia in Aulis) in an exciting modern way that brought it alive. And since then, her experimental productions of Virginia Woolf and Martin Crimp have been, even at their very worst, fascinating stretches of the theatrical vocabulary.

But now, returning to Greek tragedy with the same adapter, Don Taylor, and some of the same acting team, she seems to have lost her spark.

Many of the same staging elements are there, some of them by now recognisable Mitchell signatures. But they don't serve or enrich the play, and are beginning to look a bit tired in themselves.

Euripedes' play is the almost action-less account of the royal women of Troy after the Greek victory. As they wait to learn who is going to be given to which Greek general as a concubine or slave, Queen Hecuba and the others bewail their fate.

Hecuba's mad prophetess daughter is carried off, Hector's widow Andromache has her young son taken and killed (out of Greek fear he might grow up to become an avenger), and Menelaus comes to fetch Helen, who started it all.

It's all about pain, about the evil of war expressed through the simple observation that men kill and get killed, and women grieve.

And at its best the play says this simply and powerfully, through Don Taylor's harsh translation: 'There is no end to pain. The next horror will always be worse.' and 'Everything I have done in my life has meant nothing to God.'

But instead of intensifying this, the production somehow flattens it out, the same staging devices that drew us into Iphegenia now distancing us and muting our emotional response.

All the familiar Katie Mitchell touches are there - a mix of ancient, modern and 1940s in the sets and costumes, the use of amplified offstage sounds (the slamming of doors or noise of alarms) to increase tension, the blend of solidly naturalistic and stylised acting.

As in almost every other Mitchell show, music is heard at seemingly random moments, driving the characters into a compulsive, trance-like fit of ballroom dancing (here, to Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing')

But where in the past these things created an aura of mysticism that coloured the whole play, here they seem just mechanically pasted on, distracting from the text in which all the play's power lies.

About half the cast are part of what has become in the past few years a Katie Mitchell repertory company, and they clearly find continued challenge and satisfaction in this style. But this time it's not reflected in their performances.

The usually radiant Kate Duchene isn't allowed to give Hecuba the burning force of her intelligence (as she did with Clytemnestra three years ago), but is directed to moan and wail in ways that interfere with the raw power of the text.

Sinead Matthews fares even worse as Cassandra, her mix of shrieking and muddy diction reducing too many of her lines to mere gabble.

Anastasia Hille's Andromache is regal but wooden, and Susie Trayling's strongest moments as Helen come, not in her scene with Stephen Kennedy's Irish Menelaus, but earlier, when we realise that that's her intensely pacing the isolation cell in which she has (we guess) been placed to protect her from the wrath of the other women.

In this rather cool and distanced setting it is Michael Gould in the small role of a sympathetic Greek jailer who conveys the most recognisable humanity.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Women Of Troy - National Theatre 2007

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