The Trojan Women
This is a production of Philip Vellacott’s translation of Euripides’ fifth century BC play about the tragic fate of the women of Troy’s royal house following the conquest of Troy by the Greek forces led my Menelaus and Agamemnon after the ten-year siege described in Homer’s Iliad.
It is distinguished by being played in masks, but first an unmasked actress sets the scene, explaining the circumstances that have brought Troy to ruin.
The masks are designed and made by director Chris Vervain who has made a specialist study of the use of masks in ancient Greek theatre. The main character masks are fully painted, but those of the chorus are white with minimum features and identical, which enables performers to move in and out of the chorus as they are needed to play named characters.
Denying the use of changing emotion on the face, the masks impose a playing style that demands physical expression through the body and heightens awareness of inclination of the head, posture and what the hands and arms are doing which is effective in much the same way as unmasked, but more so.
Unnecessary movement or fidgeting that is out of character becomes much more noticeable and, though there are occasional exceptions, this cast has been carefully rehearsed to match control its physicality. Sometimes it is heightened natural movement and sometimes highly stylized, especially in sequences of choral dance.
This stylization is matched by the delivery of the text which seems consciously treated as being verse with line endings marked and with some verbal emphases against the manner of natural speech. Again this varies considerable between members of the cast but often the delivery, though rhythmic, interrupts the sense of more natural speech. The actor has not made the verse seem like a thought or utterance freshly born, ideas are not held in the mind through to completeness.
This certainly does not apply to Briony Rawle’s Hecabe (the form of Hecuba used in this version) which is a fine performance. As the now-widowed Queen of Troy, destined for slavery in Odysseus’ household, she has the advantage of a more naturalistic mask which seems made for her.
Some of the others are out of proportion with the body they have to match and have exaggerated features, which seem unbalanced in the close proximity of this performance space. Rawle has absorbed the character of the mask and makes herself one with it. Her movements, aided by the use of a stick, assume its character and she is that ageing queen, though with a young voice that betrays the youth of the actress. The style of the production gives her licence to forget old limbs at moments when she joins the chorus in a more active choreographic episode without this noticeably jarring.
Raphael Bar as both Poseidon and Menelaus has a strong voice but lacks a matching eloquence in his gestures and James Unsworth’s Talthybius, though also well-spoken, allows his mask to incline too much downwards, weakening its impact—the eye line of a mask indicates where the wearer is looking and whom he or she is addressing.
In a drama as bereft of hope as this, it is intriguing that the production introduces a comic element. In the confrontation between Poseidon and Athena, the gods poke at each other with their trident and spear (made more comic because Athena’s spear, made to be seen from one side only, is flourished regardless).
This Athena (Charlotte Baker) has a very “county” manner. Andromache (Helen Jessica Liggat) at times becomes rather primly pompous, but that matches this translation. She is not helped by an over-large mask, but, when crumpled on the ground clutching the child about to be torn from her, that awkwardness of proportion disappears and she becomes touchingly tragic.
Alyssa Burnett is a suitably distracted Cassandra and Victoria Walsh’s Helen, helped by an excellent mask and appropriately exotic costume, turns on the charm to make the case for her innocence to the distracting giggling of the chorus; they may know she is lying but it seems an odd reaction in these circumstances unless the intention is to suggest a growing hysteria among them, for they later express their agonising through contorted choreographic shapes.
This is a clearly presented telling of the story and, though it sometimes pays more attention to rhythm than to meaning, it demonstrates the effectiveness of Vervain’s masks when they are matched to the physique of the player and worn by someone who understands their use. The action, and especialy the chorus work, is often subtly supported by Penelope Anne Shipley's wordless music sung by her, Fawn James and Anita Creed.
Although this is my first experience of this company’s work, they have already presented other classical Greek plays and I will watch with interest how they develop their mask work, especially if Briony Rawle is in the cast.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton