At the start of the Young Vic’s current production of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women (in association with the Actors Touring Company and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh) the Chorus stands and affirms its readiness to perform the play while the names of financial supporters are read. This, as far as we know, was common practice in Athens, when such works first went before a viewing public in the 5th century BCE. Those things done, a libation is poured for Dionysus – god of wine and theatre – and the play begins.
The revival of these ritual steps reminds us both of how the Greeks saw theatre in a societal and religious sense and also of how those ideas are still carried into the world of today. The financial backers are not thanked individually this time: all those who have purchased tickets are too numerous to name along with the funding bodies whose institutional support echoes the benevolence of the wealthy Athenians. The Chorus, too, made up of women from the local area, takes on the parts that would have been played by young Athenian males, working alongside professional actors to realise the play. The libation is poured from a bottle of wine rather than a ceremonial bowl, but as the red liquid stains the front of the stage it is still possible to feel, amidst the incense and the authentic music provided by Callum Armstrong and Ben Burton, that something of the ancient original persists on a November afternoon in 2017.
Of all the ancient Greek plays, though, this revival feels the most urgent and vital. Its plot, the tale of fifty women fleeing forced marriage in Egypt and seeking asylum in Greece, brings into focus issues that preoccupied the ancient world every bit as much as that of today. What are the obligations of the country to which refugees flee? What do we mean when we talk of ‘safety’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘understanding’? How far will we be asked to go on the behalf of those who are strangers to us until they arrive on our doorstep? The play is staged in contemporary dress, so the women could well have fled their homes in the clothes they are wearing, while King Pelasgos in his business suit could just as easily be the minister delegated the task of resolving their asylum claim. It all looks and sounds ritualised, but with a real trace of the bureaucratic and the political.
In the tense exchanges of the opening hour of the play pleas are submitted, promises made, arguments offered and, finally, a decision reached. The women will be offered the protection of Argos: a course of action proposed by the King but crucially approved by the populace. When the Egyptians arrive and try to claim what they consider ‘theirs’ the Greeks stand firm. When the issue was still in the balance Pelasgos had pondered that “to bar you brings horror, but welcome brings war.” The decision to help, even at the risk of incurring consequences, is arguably the play’s great lesson: from this stems much of the Greek awareness of why they were to be considered superior to other nations. A sense of justice prevails, a belief that there is a ‘right’ course of action and a duty to pursue it. The play creates tension while the women’s fate is in the balance, but the resolution of that anxiety is the affirmation of the Greek world-view.
At a time when the beaches of Greece are frequently filled with incoming boats from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean this play feels incredibly timely. At a time when issues of gender discrimination and sexual abuse are so widespread the women’s pleas for equality and understanding carry a powerful charge. In this production the Chorus is been made up of women from the local community who have rehearsed their parts in the evenings and weekends of the past two months. Alongside the other actors, their collective speech and movement foregrounds the suppliant women’s plight: by turns fearful and optimistic, putting their lives in the hands of strangers but knowing that doing so represents their best hope. The overall effect is remarkable, and a testament to the work of everyone involved. For the play’s original Athenian audience this work, along with other (now sadly lost) parts of the tetralogy from which it alone has survived, was a ritual affirmation of the values that made them who they were. For London in this age of Brexit, fake news, and immigration bans it challenges us to ask whether what the Chorus call “this thing called democracy” matters as much to us as it did two and a half millennia ago.
The Suppliant Women is at the Young Vic Theatre, London, until 25th November. For details see: https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/the-suppliant-women