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The Suppliant Women
"When trouble strikes women it takes many forms, sir,
And our form is marriage – marriage unwanted.
We never intended to go into exile
But rather than marry we decided to run."

— Chorus
The Suppliant Womenv
The Women (Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Unusually for a Greek play, the chorus here are the protagonists and they are the suppliant women seeking asylum in Greece or Argos. David Greig has written a new version for the Actors Touring Company of Aeschylus' play of two and a half thousand years ago about women fleeing Egypt because they do not want to marry their Egyptian cousins.

Greig's version is mostly faithful to the ancient text. Ramin Gray directs a chorus of locally sourced community players to play the women, who have trained with Mary King voice coach for two months and who are led by a professional actor, Gemma May.

John Browne has composed music which is played by Barnaby Brown and Ben Burton on a variety of ancient and percussive instruments led by the playing of the aulos, the double pipe depicted on some Greek vases. The rhythms of ancient Greek plays are reflected here in the drumming with the women choreographed to move together by Sasha Milavic Davies. Other community players will play the Egyptian men and the citizens of Argos.

As in Ancient Greece a politician or noted local personage is invited to deliver a libation, pouring wine along the front of the stage and welcoming the audience. The libation giver asks, "Do we see ourselves reflected in this strange and ancient mirror?"

This is an exciting production with the women stepping forward, to the side and back repeatedly in a unified group. As they dance they let their heads drop, flopping to the rhythm, as if battered by the elements.

They speak well and clearly, so often a problem when a large number are talking together; but here there is good vocal clarity. They women have come by sea to Argos where they can claim ancestry through Io from Argos who was turned into a heifer by Hera, jealous of her husband Zeus' affection for the girl. Twins Danaos and Aegyptos each had 50 children, Danaos 50 daughters and Aegyptos who rules Egypt, 50 sons. The Suppliant Women here are the Daniades, the 50 daughters of Danaos who are being asked to marry their Egyptian cousins but instead their father (Omar Ebrahim) has built a ship to help them escape.

I have talked about the ancient roots of this play, but as we watch the situation unfold we are forced to think about those seeking asylum on our shores and what it is they are fleeing from because it is no accident that the Danaiades are women fleeing male oppressors and forced marriage. As the actors describe their options they unfurl black scarves and tell us that Death is the god that never refuses asylum and threaten to hang themselves.

The king doesn't want the war that will arise from taking in the women but agrees to ask the citizens of Argos to decide. As the women plead they wave the suppliant branches, wooden branches tied with white wool and cotton, the precursor of the "I come in peace" white flag. They move together bent over as if blown by a very strong wind in descriptive and emotive movement. King Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham) challenges their claim to Argos and they detail their lineage from when Io fled, tormented by gad flies set on her by Hera, to Egypt and gave birth to her calf on the banks of the Nile. They draw in black powder the image of the exhausted Io and her calf on the floor of the stage.

The women wait in the Greek temple for the vote which, when it is won is celebrated by a joyful dance with streamers and confetti fired in celebration. But all too soon the Egyptian men, the sons of Aegyptos land in barges to recapture them dragging them by their hair. "These men don't fear Zeus, they'll break every rule. They're gripped with desire to have what they want. Dog-bold and slavering / In a pack howling, Hungry for girl-meat / Foul and obscene."

King Pelasgos offers them asylum but as he does his citizens are urging the women to marry because they say marriage is better than war. "Refugees bring cold winds," say the citizens voicing prejudice against strangers.

A remarkable fragment of poetry has survived which has the goddess Aphrodite urging the women to procreate in the context of earthly harvest, "The wide sky arches for sex with earth / The dark earth yearns for penetration / Wetness falls from the sky's wide fullness / Rain then impregnates the land. / The land gives birth to wheat to barley / Fruit trees, grass to feed the beasts / This fecund marriage, moist, eternal / Brings to flower all things alive. /The maker of this match is me: / I'm sex. I'm love. I'm Aphrodite."

This wonderful production deserves a far larger audience than has seen it for the way the ancient drama resonates with current issues of morality, responsibility and ethics with thrilling dance and music. It is to be hoped it can be televised or filmed, ideally set in one of Europe's beautiful ancient Greek theatres.

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The Suppliant Women
By Aeschylus
In a version by David Greig
Directed by Ramin Gray
With: Oscar Batterham, Omar Ebrahim, Gemma May
The Suppliant Women: Abigail Glasser, Jennifer-Jane Benjamin, Hana Oliveira, Janessa Bobby, Kristen Barrett-Ralph, Lois Mulvenna, Minnie Cunningham, Cilla Lafayette Kwabi, Taryn Eva, Marni Ibrahim-addo, Hseih Chiao-Lin, Hermione Leitch, Jesse Bateson, Kyra Ansine, Malinda Smith, Olumide Olorunfemi, Savannah Ayoade-Greaves, Tizeoa Kistoo-Sanch, Anjelica Serra, Etta Marcus-Pooley, Iris Hobson-Mazur, Kaysha Woolllery, Laura Fernandes-Sergio, Millie Lynch Bailey, Poppy Holmes, Shayde Sinclair, Toto Brun
Choreography: Sasha Milavic Davies
Design: Lizzie Clachan
Auto Player Cameron Armstrong/Barnaby Brown
Percussionist: Ben Burton
Music: John Browne
Lighting Design: Charles Balfour
Vocal Leader: Mary King
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 25th November 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th November 2017 performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 8LZ (Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)
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