Review: The Trojan Women

Robyn Strachan views The Trojan Women and comes out feeling a little underwhelmed

The renown afforded to Homer’s Iliad and the collective saturation of figures such as Odysseus means that the story of the fall of Troy is imprinted into the cultural psyche, yet it tends to be portrayed from the viewpoint of the marauding Greek armies. The face that launched a thousand ships, Achilles’ heel, the Wooden Horse… these are images that have become legendary, and
legends that have become tropes. Greek dramatist, Euripides, dissects with flair and perception the aftermath of the Trojan wars; not only from the perspective of the Trojans, but using women.

Euripides’ tragedy shows war not in its glory and pomp, but in the desolation of those left behind. Uniquely Greek in character, its long monologues and Chorus distance The Trojan Women from the modern perception of drama. However,
this also ensures that the play presents a challenge for the twenty-first century director and it is questionable as to how competently the UCL Classical Drama Society have addressed this.

Whilst their deviation from the togas-and-tragedy-masks formula one might expect from a Greek tragedy is to be commended, the director has here chosen to set her production during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. By choosing to set two wars in parallel, this serves to universalise the production and makes its anti-war polemic more relevant to a modern audience. However, there was a disappointing lack of an Asian aesthetic throughout, devaluing this conceit to the point where it seemed surplus to the play. Western wartime music and mostly 1940s costumes did lend a distinctive flavour to the production, even if the rendition of ‘They’ll Always Be an Ileum’ seemed more Monty Python satire than poignant. Far more successful was the scenery and lighting. The scaffolding fence, clanking gates and carefully chosen lighting was incredibly evocative and in its simplicity provided the perfect foil for the range of human emotions on display. Uniformed and threatening, the military garb of the Greek soldiers placed them in chilling antithesis to the Trojan survivors, reducing male actors to near-faceless embodiments of cruelty.

However, the impact of the Chorus was minimal as its members dancing seemed a needless gimmick; they were low energy and seemed almost embarrassed. Indeed an evident lack of direction seemed to mar the play as a whole, meaning that the obvious acting talent of many of the cast was not utilised to full advantage. Hecuba, the central heroine of the tragedy and portrayed by a girl of evident skill and commitment to the role, came across as fairly petulant and self-indulgent: not something that the cast probably had in mind when conceiving a woman crushed under the weight of her own desperation. Flashes of dramatic innovation and a sustained intimacy with the audience meant that as a whole Hecuba was a success, although with more support the actress could develop her role to something rather spectacular. The strength of this production is in its individual performances, one of which is undoubtedly that of Hecuba.

For evocative and harrowing spectacle, the actress playing Andromeda was superb and seemed aligned with the stresses and trauma under which her character was broken. Wonderfully visceral and mature, her movements across the stage were raw and distinctive whilst her vocal delivery encapsulated well Andromeda’s own, personal, tragedy. Although by no means a realistic portrayal of madness, the sightseer Cassandra was imbued with a lovely fluidity in her movements which not only highlighted the spiritual discrepancy between her character and the other women, but added an eerie overtone to her prophecies. This actress seemed vulnerable, which is essential for an effective Cassandra, and the physicality which she brought to the role was certainly effective, meshing well with the fundamental stylisation of Greek tragedy.

Although many scenes are fairly forgettable, despite the magnificent language used, the scene in which the women mourn for the murder of a baby was both emotionally and stylistically satisfying, as well as being incredibly touching. The sight of the survivors kneeling around a tiny corpse was highly affecting, and the rendition of ‘Abide With Me’ was spectacular due to the amazing voice of the singer, as well as bringing the exotic action of the play into the realms of our cultural awareness. The final scene, where the women are dragged from their compound, taps into the grotesque images from concentration camps and is superbly acted: so convincing, so very horrific.

Overall, this is a production which suffers from a lack of coherent direction and does not fully exploit the considerable talents at its disposal. It has potential as a production in its current form, yet its evident shortcomings prevent The Trojan Women from fully realising this. The assembled cast are rather wonderful and the modern version of this story, Glen Maxwell’s awe-inspiring After Troy, would provide an opportunity for this development, as well as acting as the perfect companion piece to The Trojan Women. This is an enjoyable production, but one which could have been so much more so.