Women Of Troy
Theatre Royal, Hobart
March 8th, 2023
The common ingredients of a Greek tragedy so often include death, war, destruction, and resurrection; elements of life that to those of us lucky to live in a reasonably privileged country, seem almost mythical. But for so many others, these are devastatingly impending realities. This new production of Women of Troy, produced by Archipelago Productions for Ten Days on The Island, brings into focus how after two thousand plus years, such theatre can still speak to us with such potent urgency. This fearless depiction of the millions of displaced people due to violence, inspires a recognition of the true heroes of war, not the victors, but the ones struggling with their humanity in the face of desperate circumstance. Women of Troy awakens in us a fury and a sorrow that we can’t do more.
Archipelago have assembled an astonishing ensemble cast, led by the ineffable Sarah Peirse. Not since seeing Pamela Rabe in Ghosts at Belvoir in 2017 have I been more captivated by a performance than Peirse’s Hecuba. (Coincidentally I saw both Rabe and Peirse alongside each other in STC’s The Children in 2018.) Peirse commandeered the stage, holding us in an overwhelming silence in the first minutes; I haven’t experienced a quiet like that in a theatre for some time. Every word was delectably harrowing, a painful representation of a queen and mother in mourning. She served us as a narrator, positioning herself to be the pillar of strength and support for the many, yet became almost a mother to us as an audience, every moment providing us with a warm embrace and shelter from the horrors. This helped to enable the final moments to become a devastating moment of pathos.
Almost inconceivably, the supports weren’t dwarfed by her either; Marta Dusseldorp’s Andromache led with a palpable fear, which cycled through the many stages of grief. An agonizing sorrow at losing her son to a horrible fate that turned rapidly into an impenetrable rage directed at the world and the mother and father that doomed her child to this end. This internalised violence was so dynamic and layered with subtlety it elevated her performance to a whole new level. Jane Johnson’s Cassandra, enslaved and abused by King Agamemnon is driven by hysteria. Her erratic delivery and spasmodic convulsions require a trojan like performer; working opposite a silent Hecuba for all of fifteen minutes, responding only to herself, Jane’s performance is tough to match. Angela Mahlatjie as Helen cut a striking figure of regality and beauty. From her first appearance on stage, it was immediately evident she was the “Aphrodite”, a sensuality matched only by the vulnerability of a wounded puppy. This collision of personal temperament made the conflict for her life and dignity against Hecuba and her husband, Menelaus captivating to watch.
Guy Hooper (Menelaus) and Christopher Bunworth (Guard) were the only onstage patriarchal representatives, and both were vulgar, authoritative presences. This depiction of the disparity between the genders was made shockingly clear, the men always being left on the right side of history, painted as the heroes of the moment which continues to hold true to this day.
The ensemble was united by the traditional Greek chorus, here comprised of women of all ages that performed breathtaking music composed by Katie Noonan and Behrouz Boochani. These remarkable compositions built a mood that never let us go, with harmonies so impeccably directed by Amanda Hodder there were at times, audible gasps from the audience at these moments of speechlessness.
I personally was immensely eager to see another Ben Winspear directed production. 2022’s Past the Shallows was a feature of 2022 and his direction was inspiring. It is ultimately satisfying for me, when I manage to experience theatre that continues to inspire growth and further development of my own craft. All art should afford the possibility for a human to personally grow or to be reminded of forgotten knowledge. Winspear’s direction in Women of Troy revelled in stillness and it became a powerful expression of the moments between. Throughout the seventy-minute run time, so often so much was said, when so little was done.
Barrie Kosky, a world class opera director, and co-writer of this adaptation with Tom Wright, felt like an inspiration toward the operatic style set design, but this set was spectacular. A constantly evolving set, we began with the audience and actors being divided by a wire fence during the opening monologue. Not only did this serve as a physically impenetrable “fourth wall” but it established this instinctive divide between us; the audience or the privileged, and the disadvantaged or displaced. Once this cage raised it was a liberation, a welcome that bestowed upon us no freedom at all; as a set of grey walls which angling inwards, transformed such a large space into a claustrophobic prison. Without spoiling the dynamics of this set, it continued to develop this claustrophobia until the moment it breaks free completely. However, this final transition, did little to free our characters, as like caged animals, they were susceptible to the pleasures of the apparent heroes of history, on display and preyed upon in a depiction of toxic masculinity.
Lighting designers who are not afraid of the dark and create a world based on mood and effect are my favourite kinds of lighting designers. Like Winspear’s direction, its so much more powerful to see only what we need to see, and build a world around that. In this, Nick Schlieper’s design is spellbinding, and it is why he is one of Australia’s best.
Women of Troy is a feat of theatrical brilliance, that displays the immense creative talent that we have on this island. If this is the advertisement to spend ten days at this festival, then if you aren’t already in Hobart, do whatever you can to scrape together enough money for a bus, a car, a pushbike, or a plane, and get yourself to Hobart and spend ten days with the Women of Troy. A truly remarkable piece of theatre.
Review By Matt Taylor