Misery is piled upon misery in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s The Trojan Women. Impeccably well -acted by this years’ batch of graduating students and given a relatively straightforward production by director of the moment Sally Cookson, it’s a tough ask for performer and audience alike but one that eventually rewards the effort.
Cookson has set it in a modernist warehouse, with butcher like plastic sheets hanging from the doors, these women feel like cattle at a slaughterhouse. These women of Troy are huddled together after their city is sacked, draped in their dead husbands jackets, waiting for news of their missing loved ones and eventual fates. Its resonances are contemporary, Kosovo and Calais, refugees lost and directionless, terrified and displaced.
Euripides’ 415 BC play is routinely placed in with the ‘greats’ of the Western canon for its bravery in writing about an momentous event mere years after and for its ahead of its time in placing the females gaze centre stage. However watching it today there is a sneaking feeling it would not pass the literary manager. Structurally it starts at such a high point of anguish it can never build upon it and so long before its end we have become desensitised to its horror. Like all the Greek plays it is all tell and no show, all the really exciting stuff happening off-stage.
Cookson tries to combat this with her exemplary theatrical language, some of which pays off, some of which fails. Its undoubted strength is in the musical soundscape by John O’Hara, haunting and eerie, with the occasional echo of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in its bass notes and rhythmic chorus singing. The cast harmonise well in their laments but occasionally it feels too polished, the sound they create too sweet; anguish replaced by beauty instead. The chorus move at odds with the piece, bodies swaying in unison like the sea that swept Helen of Troy away from her husband and into Paris’ waiting hands but again it’s polished to within an inch of its life and so feels like a device rather than flowing organically from the text. It is at its best when Cookson embraces the barrenness of the situation, when she allows the actors play it simple and still , the lights and beige costume washing them out, removing all colour from their lives. The more theatrical it becomes, the more it removes itself from its powerful message beneath.
The acting is superb throughout; the nine women strikingly individualistic but combining as one in the chorus laments. Hannah Bristow is a still and powerful figure as Hecuba, a fighter who will do whatever it takes to survive, Eleanor Jackson’s distraught Cassandra, driven mad by grief and Michelle Fox a scheming Helen of Troy, striking with her red hair and emerald dress, sweet of tongue until her deception is brutally revealed and she becomes a terrified girl caught up in a man’s world. The production hits this point hard time and time again, women being forced to sail on the backs of men and their actions. They leave for the ships knowing they will swap from the beds of their vanquished husbands to the beds of the conquering Greeks. War damages beyond the battlefield. The men may have fallen but for the women left behind their horror has only just begun.