‘Protect us from being tamed’ cry the 40-strong chorus in The Suppliant Women. Well, whatever Aeschylus had in mind for his original migrants, I don’t think this lot need to worry – a less ‘tameable’ group of young women I can’t imagine. Indeed, they positively pulsate with power.
And yet … The Haka-like displays of raw energy and defiance are juxtaposed with scenes of vulnerability, where, with beautiful bird-like hand-fluttering, the women tremble and entreat the Argos men for protection. Similarly, rebellious proclamations are followed by (apparently) meek acceptance of instructions to assimilate by being demure and ‘invisible’. (‘Apparently’ because, when push finally comes to shove, they simply cannot find it in themselves to be compliant. Hurrah!) These contrasts – of stridency and helplessness – run throughout the play and account for the multiple changes of pace and direction in this otherwise fairly straightforward tale. They are compelling to watch, though they also give it the feeling of a roller coaster – at once exhilarating and slightly vertiginous.
The play has understandably been lauded for its feminist credentials. It is a tale of women refusing to submit to men seeking to subjugate them, women who would prefer to embrace death than their male pursuers. Performed with such passion, it takes some considerable restraint not to actively cheer them on. And yet … It turns out that their rejection of men extends beyond those who seek only to conquer and use them. Indeed, it seems that all sexual relationships, consensual or not, are to be shunned. (Artemis 1 – 0 Aphrodite). I am put in mind of babies and bathwater in the equating of female power with a renunciation of sex, and it feels like an ‘all-men-are-rapists’ interpretation of feminism. So I’m afraid they lose me a little here (‘Go, Aphrodite…’).
It could be argued that this is something of a cheap jibe, given the age of the play. It’s obviously ‘easy for me to say’ – sitting here as a secure, independent woman in 2017, making nice distinctions on my laptop. On the other hand, maybe it’s testimony to the power and continued relevance of the production that I’m drawn to engage with its message and not to regard it dispassionately as a rather quaint historical artefact.
In any case, if they lose me a little at that point, it is momentary. Indeed, I am utterly mesmerised by the chorus throughout the hour and a half. And I am very, very glad to be seated in the circle where I can see all the shapes that appear and transform, and can therefore appreciate the full genius of the direction and choreography. A veritable visual feast. (Indeed, I sometimes resent the ‘interruption’ when other actors are introduced. Yes, I KNOW there’s a narrative to get through, dammit …) I also love the way the colourful, informal costumes emphasise the diversity and individuality of these young women while the beautifully coordinated movement coveys their solidarity and collective purpose.
I realise I’ve got this far and still haven’t mentioned the other major theme of the play – that of migration and its political ramifications. This hugely resonant aspect of the production is clearly the major reason for staging a 2500-year-old play in 2016/7. And it fulfils the promise, made at the opening of the play, to hold an ‘ancient mirror’ to our current dilemmas and controversies. It’s hard not to feel shamed – especially in this Brexit week – as the Argos king successfully urges his people to make the compassionate choice (albeit with the prospect of Zeus’s retribution hovering as an incentive).
However, in the end, it is not this theme that leaves me buzzing with delight at the end of the evening. The wonderful ‘Suppliant Women’ are responsible for that. A truly vibrant performance. And I would watch it all again in a heartbeat.