The Trojan Women

After Euripides adapted by Caroline Bird
Incognito Theatre
Incognito Theatre

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Katherine Leonard as Cassandra and Naomi Smallwood as Chorus
Mary Groom as Andromache and Maria Casey as Hecuba
The Ukrainian Marta Sendak as the singer

Euripides' play The Trojan Women with its harrowing depiction of the women survivors of the Greek massacre awaiting their fate at the hands of ruthless soldiers has long been a favourite among antiwar activists. Indeed, some years ago during the Blair government’s lethal rampage across the Middle East, a fringe company performing the show at the Edinburgh Festival made a point in the opening Festival parade of walking directly behind the British soldiers who led the procession with a banner claiming “they killed them all.”

Incognito Theatre’s production of Caroline Bird’s adaptation of the play directed by Jeremy Davies reminds us at the end of their performance of the very real horror of the war now taking place in Ukraine with terrible images of its bloody and scarred victims flashed across a screen above the stage as the Ukrainian refugee Marta Sendak sings a very moving Ukrainian song.

During this modern-dress performance set in a baby and mother ward of a hospital, we are told of the murder of all Trojan males including even the youngest children. One small baby is taken offstage by a soldier (Matthew Pert) and brought back as a bloodied bundle.

We also hear that the Trojan women have been raped and are to be allocated as sexual slaves to the victors. There is no dodging the cruelties of war.

However, Caroline Bird’s version of the play shifts our focus to the differences between the women. The imperious former Queen of Troy Hecuba is self-centred and selfish, insisting on the importance of men. She tells the others, “a woman must give herself soul and flesh” to men, as, “we are here to give pleasure not to receive it.”

As if to illustrate her cold-hearted approach, she agrees to swap her living daughter for the dead body of her son and shows no concern for the heavily pregnant woman handcuffed to a bed. But then Hecuba is a Queen and the bed prisoner is an ordinary villager without a name or a status and generally disregarded by others.

Despite all this, Maria Casey, in a measured, powerful performance as the unlikeable Hecuba, allows us to recognise her as a complicated person worthy of concern.

However, our sympathies more often shift towards the handcuffed figure described in the programme as the Chorus and given a fine, strong, believable performance by Naomi Smallwood.

Unfortunately, Caroline Bird’s version of Helen and Cassandra runs with two historic stereotypes of women that have been used to disregard women's objections to their treatment.

Cassandra (Katherine Leonard) is depicted as mad, arriving wild-eyed and humming a tune as she bounces on a bed or makes quick speeches to no one in particular. Helen (Ditta Demeter), draped in just a towel, but certain of her own legendary beauty, confidently swans in, strips and dresses ready to sexually conquer whichever man arrives to decide her future.

Helen here appears as the shallow sexual plaything of men, while Cassandra is the mad hysteric. These uncomplicated and one-dimensional types fit neatly with the way the world and particularly men can explain any complaint women may have.

Yet other versions of their story, including that by Euripides, give us strong reasons to side with these women. Surely Helen is right to decide whom she loves and what should happen to her body. A god whose sexual advances were rejected by Cassandra gave his victim the ability to prophesy the future but never to be believed, a situation that mirrors the way female abuse victims continue to be treated by our society.

Although these characterisations emphasise the differences between the victims of war, there is no missing the utter brutality of the invading army.

Incognito gives us a fluent, engaging show that holds its audience to the very end when we are left for a few moments in silence before the image of the Ukrainian flag.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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