The Canadian author Douglas Coupland used to be obsessed with the idea of Armageddon arriving while you were in the supermarket, this most mundane and modern of rituals abruptly interrupted by nuclear apocalypse; finding ourselves eviscerated in the tinned foods aisle, while shelves of baked beans and Kraft Dinner melted around us. This was the image that came to mind as I reached the end of Katie Mitchell’s dark, jarring, magnificent production of Women of Troy; these hauntingly mundane rituals stripped of all importance in a world where life is always more fragile and meaningless than we appreciate.
Euripides' play is, unsurprisingly, about the women of Troy, led by the royal family of Hecuba, her daughter Cassandra and her son’s wife Andromache, in the fallout from their defeat in the Trojan wars. In this production they find themselves in an anonymous coastal warehouse, their glamorous evening dresses hanging awkwardly from their hunched, anxious frames. There’s something decidedly feral about them; about the way they scatter across the stage at a noise from outside, about the way they hold the seam of their dresses in their mouth to climb the steel ladders on either side of the stage. Their Greek captors are seen fleetingly, rushing in and out in an uncomfortably repetitive frenzy of locking and unlocking doors; a beautiful and well-maintained conceit that begins to wear the audience down with sense captivity as much as it does the pack of startled, scared women huddled on the cavernous Lyttleton stage.
Trapped in this uncomfortable prison, awaiting their removal to whichever of the Greek leaders has won their slavery, the women in Mitchell’s production survive on a messy orgy of half destroyed rituals. Fire rituals, mourning rituals and burial rituals rub up against more familiar rituals; the women are constantly ferreting in their glittering purses for make-up or a cigarette, their shaking hands going through the motions of reassuringly familiar actions.
And then there is the dancing - a strange, mesmerising quick step; sometimes at full speed sometimes in slow motion, sometimes with partners, sometimes alone. Often the characters who have already left, even their Greek captors, rush back onstage to take part in the dance; at one beautiful, absurd moment, Helen, naked but for a pair of heels, dances across the stage in the arms of Menelaus, the husband she left to begin the conflict and who has just assured us of the inevitability of her execution.
In this dance, which takes the position of some kind of bizarre mourning ritual carried out every time a woman is torn from the throng and forced off stage, all these absurd, meaningless rituals come together. Ancient Greece melts into Mitchell’s modern setting, religious mourning bleeds into the glamour and decadence of secular society; it’s a disorderly, beautiful, haunting, meaningless ritual, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
This production must surely put paid to Brecht’s ideas about the reassuringly cathartic quality of Greek drama. Euripides’ play is undoubtedly that of an outsider, bristling with fury at the oppressive brutality nestling at the heart of Grecian history and society. The play slips under the skin of the Homer’s mythic history and tears it apart from the inside out. Status, religion, war and history are rendered meaningless in an apocalyptic vision of suffering.
Mitchell’s play flits awkwardly between messy realism, song, dance, and choral proclamation; jarring the audience from any sense of continuity. It’s alienating in a very Brechtian sense, Hecuba’s assertions about the emptiness of God and Power flying from the stage like soap box aphorisms, spat out into the audience. Indeed, Hecuba is just cruel and aloof enough to render any hope of comfortable sympathy null and void.
This is not about the suffering of these women, it is undoubtedly about the meaningless suffering of anyone in the face of god, history, power, and empire. In this sense it is resonantly political; not in a patronisingly limited way that might have the women running around in orange jumpsuits, but in a way that opens up the whole of human history to criticism. And in the final few bombastically apocalyptical moments, as the sirens and the helicopters whirr behind the black safety curtain, you cannot but realise the desolate pointlessness of the endless war and suffering on which our comfortable lives are built. And hidden in there somewhere is the additional nagging feeling that someday it will be our turn to suffer.