Adaptor: David Greig
Director: Ramin Gray
Reviewer: May Mellstrom
Fifty women board a boat in Egypt and set sail for Greece to claim asylum, fleeing the threat of forced marriage and seeking protection and sanctuary. The synopsis may sound ripped from the headlines but is in fact, the basis for The Suppliant Women, first written and performed in Ancient Greece a staggering 2500 years ago. The original version by Aeschylus is adapted here by David Greig and incorporates Greek custom; each performance is introduced by a member of the local community who pays respect to those who have made it possible. On this occasion, newly appointed Chair of the Royal Exchange Board Ben Caldwell has the honour and pours a libation of red wine as an offering to the Gods before the play can truly begin.
The ceremony is undoubtedly an unusual opening but it sets the tone of the evening; this is a piece with a deep reverence for theatrical tradition that simultaneously feels like a bold reinvention of what theatre can be. The result is poetic and powerful.
Greig’s text is performed to a rhythm and tempo set by composer John Browne’s score and is a startling combination of choral song and protest chants. With live musicians, it features both beautiful melodies and rousing anthems.
In a spirited performance, Gemma May leads the suppliant women with complete conviction as they plead with King Pelasgus (Oscar Batterham) to grant them asylum. Their father, Danaos (Omar Ebrahim), counsels that as foreigners in this new land they must choose their words carefully. King Pelasgus is torn; to turn them away risks offending Zeus but to accept them could lead to war. How to decide? He offers his people a vote. Despite its ancient origin, the plot could hardly be more pertinent.
The three aforementioned performers are the only professionals in the cast with the rest consisting of amateur members of the Manchester community, forming the customary Greek chorus. Despite the obvious strength of the professional actors, the play ultimately belongs to the ensemble of ‘suppliant women’ who speak and sing as one, clearly communicating the narrative while producing a powerful, harmonious sound.
Choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies lends their movement an unrestrained and liberated feel; although it is here that the limited space shows through, with some awkward near misses and collisions between cast members and unfortunate mishaps with props.
Ramin Gray directs the large ensemble with skill and attention to detail and at ninety minutes without an interval it is just the right length for the flow and pattern of the music to build to a natural crescendo without becoming repetitive.
The Suppliant Women was written by Aeschylus as the first play in a trilogy. As the only surviving part, we are left to wonder for ourselves what becomes of the women? What does their future hold? With debates on migration at the forefront of political discourse and campaigns continuing for gender equality some two and a half thousand years later, one suspects they may still be chanting.
Runs until 1 April 2017 | Image: Stephen Cummiskey