Live Canon and the Ukrainian Institute London
Ukraine had better hope that the Gods don't conjure up the version of Cassandra in Lesia Ukrainka’s 1908 poetic drama during their resistance to the Russian invasion. It would have the troops running for the hills and some of them throwing themselves into the nearest river.
It doesn’t matter what the other characters are doing with this Cassandra. She is bound to have one of her turns and prophesy the horrific death of that person or someone close to them.
In the second scene of this well-performed play centred on the Trojan War, she sits knitting with her younger sister Polyxena (Mia Foo) when the name of the man her sister is in love with crops up. Swiftly, Cassandra (Evie Florence) predicts his death and on the back of it realises her sister is also to die. Momentarily, she considers saving Polyxena having to wait for death by stabbing her on the spot. Instead, she cuts off a huge chunk of her sister’s hair.
She then talks about Dolan (Guy Clark), the man she loves, who she says will soon be killed by the Greeks. The pattern repeats itself for the play’s over two hours of running time. Hardly anyone can stumble into her presence without the prediction of an horrific death.
It’s not surprising that other characters find her very irritating, though why they never take her prophecy seriously is a bit of a mystery, except that this is drama, not real life. Unfortunately, it is a drama that doesn’t have much dramatic tension, is distractingly wordy and lacks any character shading or development.
However, there is a scene, some way into the play, that illustrates how things might have been different. She is in conversation with her twin brother Helenus (Joseph Akubeze), a seer who also sees the future. He points to the problems with her approach.
He argues that she “alarms the people”. In contrast, he wrestles with the truth, giving people hope where “you give despair.” At one point, she admits as much saying, “my truth has killed my brother.”
The scene gives us an interesting friction between characters that is directly related to the plot. But it is a rarity in a play that moves from death to death with barely a pause for Cassandra to choose to do either nothing or simply make her prediction more likely.
Lesia Ukrainka is regarded as a feminist and translated Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian. She wanted social change. Her more liberal view of the world is illustrated in this watchable play by the choice of a female protagonist and a focus on women rather than the great men of history and myth.
Yet running through the play is a terrible fatalism inching its way into despair. This is understandable given she lived in a country where Russia banned publications in the Ukrainian language and was arrested by Tsarist police and kept under surveillance just a year before the play's publication.
Inevitably, the appalling attack of the Greek army on Troy will be seen as a parallel with that of Russia on Ukraine, so Putin might want to bear in mind what happened after the war to Agamémnōn who commanded the Greek forces.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna