The Suppliant Women is a highlight of an exciting 2016/17 at the Lyceum
- Alex Johnston
- 5 May 2016
David Greig's inaugural programme includes new plays, revivals, Shakespeare, Coward, Handke and a Greek chorus of up to fifty women
The appointment in Sep 2015 of David Greig as the new artistic director of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre came as a pleasant surprise, considering Greig's well-deserved reputation as one of the most restless, imaginative and hard-working figures in Scottish theatre. The Lyceum's 2016/17 season has just been announced, and even the most sceptical observer would have to admit that in a town whose great cultural institutions too often deliver the same kind of thing year in and year out, Greig is taking the Lyceum to new places.
Of course, there are classics, but they're not the most obvious choices. Shakespeare's eerily moving The Winter's Tale is directed by Max Webster, while Dominic Hill turns his hand to comedy with Noel Coward's Hay Fever. There's a new production of April de Angelis's West End hit Jumpy; new plays from Douglas Maxwell and Linda McLean; and an adaptation by Tom Wright of Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock, in a production by Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre.
The Christmas show is a version of Alice in Wonderland by that master of the theatrical mind-screw Anthony Neilson, and the Festival show is Karine Polwart's personal meditation on flight, maternity and football, Wind Resistance. Three modern classics get a view: a welcome revival by Dundee Rep of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil; the great Caryl Churchill's A Number is presented as a collaboration with the Edinburgh International Science Festival; and the closing show of the season is Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, with a cast of 450. (Yes, 450, and email email@example.com if you want to be one of them.)
But before then, there's Greig's new version of one of the oldest plays in the world: Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, presented in a co-production with Actors Touring Company. It tells the story (or rather, part of the story) of the Danaids, the mythical fifty daughters of Danaus, who were to be forcibly married to the sons of his brother the king of Egypt, but who instead escaped across the sea with their father and wound up seeking refuge at Argos. The parallels with the ongoing refugee crisis hardly need pointing out, and to begin with, the play's conflict is between the Argives' understandable wish that the women would just go away, and a recognition of their own sacred duty of hospitality to strangers. But then some very angry Egyptians turn up looking for the Danaids, and it gets really complicated. As ATC artistic director Ramin Gray says, 'Aeschylus celebrates the women’s quest for autonomy while drilling into the thorny issue of who has the right to live in the city today. It interests me greatly that the issues have changed so little in 2,500 years, and that there’s clearly an eternal aspect to the questions around identity, citizenship and freedom.'
One of the play's most appealing features is that while most Greek dramas have just one protagonist, in this one the protagonist is the entire Chorus of suppliants, played here by an amateur chorus of up to fifty women. (If you're wondering how Danaus is supposed to have fathered fifty daughters, let's just say that he wasn't a one-woman man.) ATC artistic director Ramin Gray says that the decision to use amateur performers came from the experience of working with amateur performers on Greig's 2013 play The Events, and this represents a reunion of that show's creative team, with Events composer John Browne returning for The Suppliant Women.
There is a problem with staging Greek tragedies, which is that they were all originally written and produced as individual parts of trilogies (actually, tetralogies, because each trilogy ended with a satyr play, a bit of comic relief after three days of heavy drama.) The only intact trilogy is Aeschylus's Oresteia, Zinnie Harris's adaptation of which, This Restless House, is currently playing at the Citz. The Suppliant Women was part one of a story for which we no longer have parts two and three, but Gray is confident that no excuses need be made for presenting it as a standalone play: 'I'm keen to reproduce as many of the conditions of the Greek theatre as possible, so we are accentuating the civic, ritual, political and educational aspects. Once you situate the work in this perspective you see many ways to indicate the shape of the original tetralogy, while asking audiences to feel, think and be empowered in their role as citizens.'