Review: The Suppliant Women @ Royal Exchange

A group of women, fleeing across the Mediterranean, are seeking sanctuary in Greece…

Unsure of how they will be welcomed and knowing their enemies are in pursuit, they have sworn to die rather than go back as captives to their own country.

Written 2,500 years ago, Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women deals with sexual violence, refugees, and inter-state conflict.

In a new version of the play by the Scottish playwright David Greig, The Suppliant Women has arrived at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre after productions in Edinburgh, Belfast and Newcastle.

When it was produced, Athens was moving towards democracy and had successfully defended itself in a war against Persia. Drama festivals were a key part of expressing the city’s identity.

Based on a traditional story, The Suppliant Women was one of a trilogy of plays that Aeschylus, himself a veteran of the Persian war, composed for these festivals.

Greig has sought to recreate the Ancient Greek experience and translate it to the context of a 21st Century city.

The result is a compelling drama: the women have fled from Egypt to escape forced marriage and they are hoping to be given sanctuary by Pelasgos, the King of the Greek city of Argos.

The eloquence of the women wins the sympathy of an initially unsympathetic king, but he still fears that giving them sanctuary could lead to war with Egypt. He will make no decision until the issue has been debated by the citizens of Argos themselves.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE: King of Argos, Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham), asks his people to decide on something that could make or break their ancient city

Leaving the women in the sanctuary area of a temple, he takes their father Danaus with him to speak before the public assembly.

Then Danaus returns to report that the King himself championed their case and persuaded the citizens to support the women.

As they celebrate the offer of asylum the Egyptian troops arrive. However, Pelasgos himself returns and his threat of force against the invaders makes them retreat.

At the end of the play the citizens of Argos invite the women into their city.

Yet the apparently happy ending is only a temporary respite: the Egyptians have been briefly thwarted rather than defeated and as the play has already made clear, the city will pay a terrible price for its hospitality and the troubles of the suppliant women are far from over.  

The key characters include Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham), initially haughty and pompous but redeemed by his sympathy for the women and his respect for the assembly.

Danaus (Omar Ebrahim) plays the protective father but also represents the insecurity facing the women: Ebrahim also takes on the role of persecutor in the form of the Egyptian herald who demands that the women return to their homeland.

But the focus of the play is the chorus, led by Gemma May. All the members were recruited from Greater Manchester and it is their concerns and their supplications that give the play its dynamism and are at the core of its drama.

They pray to the gods, plead before Pelasgos and are defiant before the Egyptian herald.

As a chorus they express the idea that suffering is both individual and shared, providing a kind of Everywoman experience.

The drama is supported by an original score which sets the women’s odes to the rhythm and metre of pop music, religious chant and protest song, while the ancient Greek instrument the aulos, that can be both plaintive and strident, reflects the various moods of the chorus.

Athens meets Manchester as this ancient myth truly becomes a cautionary tale for our times.

The Suppliant Women is playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until April 1. Tickets here: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/the-suppliant-women

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