I have performed in only one Greek tragedy in my life, “The Bacchae” by Euripedes. It was my friend Katie Van Winkle’s honors directing thesis at Swarthmore College, and she was assisted by Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey, a Lecoq-trained performer in Philadelphia. I was part of the chorus. It took a lot of hard work and sweat, and a lot of trial and error, but we emerged a mighty troupe of women, a powerful chorus that reflected and magnified the larger than life emotions of the play. The process was fascinating. And yes, I think the end product was nothing short of amazing. I didn’t realize how much I had learned from that show until I went to see Katie Mitchell’s “Women of Troy” last night at the National, and saw how much it did not work on so many levels.
Let me say it outright – I hated it. It was especially disappointing considering that Katie Mitchell is supposed to be one of London’s best theatre directors, and that she had staged “Iphigenia in Aulis” here in 2004 to great acclaim. According to the press blurb, this “Women of Troy” takes place in “an industrial port” in a “war-torn city”, but this was not obvious in the space we see. In fact, the set could have been anything – a speakeasy, a factory, an abandoned warehouse, a deserted nightclub. The space itself was long and rectangular, with a shallow playing space in the front. Rather bafflingly, there was a row of tables and chairs right at the edge of the stage, enclosing the main playing space, effectively preventing the performers from coming anywhere near us. If they did interesting things with it that would have been fine, but the truth was they hardly played with it except for the moment when Cassandra walked on top of the tables, and when they pulled chairs out to sit on. At the very beginning, there was a haunting moment in which we see a group of women in silhouette, sitting and standing in various places on the stage. Then, very quietly, one of them got down on her hands and knees and crawled under the tables across the stage. We saw her dark shadow for a brief moment, and then it was gone. It was beautiful, and mysterious. But when the lights went up, that moment evaporated.
For most of the play, we see a group of eight women on stage. Hecuba, the dethroned Queen of Troy, and a group of seven women. All are captives of the victorious Greek army, and are waiting for the powers that be to determine their fates. They have lost everything – their families, their homes, their city. In the show, all the women are clad in beautiful dresses and matching high heels. They still have their little clasp purses, with make-up and cigarettes and lighters. Throughout the play, they would keep putting on their make-up or light up their cigarettes, especially when the seven women were addressing the audience. I understood that this was a theatrical device to show how these women, who have lost everything, are left clutching at these objects to drown their sorrows. Perhaps Mitchell thought this was an evocative gesture, but what came out was an incredibly distracting and rather insulting portrayal of womanhood. Not only did the cigarettes and make-up not convey the women’s despair and sorrow – they also made it insignificant and petty. They reduced the women to cliches. Also, why were all the women in high heels? True, the women have been dancing the night away in celebration of the gift of the Trojan horse, but now they are captured and are about to be enslaved – wouldn’t they have at least taken off their shoes? The actresses could barely walk, much less run in that gear, yet for most of the production they were made to run on their three-inch heels from one end of the stage to another. Instead of underscoring their frailty and disintegration, the high heels just made the women look silly. They were not grounded, and hence had very little power and presence as performers. Seven women and Hecuba, and still they managed to make the shallow playing space seem too big.
I was very frustrated with the way Katie Mitchell handled the chorus. She had them listed in the program as seven different women, each with their own names. Yet in the show they barely had any lines to say, much less words that would define them as separate characters. If they had been a strong chorus I probably wouldn’t have been so annoyed, but the truth was, they were barely a chorus at all. They did a lot of quivering and wincing and running around, but each actress stayed in her own world. Nobody listened to each other, and no one tuned in to the group. They did not move with their whole bodies. I am not saying that they need to move in unison all the time, but rhythmically, the women were all over the place, and constantly jarring with whoever was speaking at the moment. For example, rather than giving focus to Hecuba as she spoke, they would look away, and whisper to one another. Even when the attention was on them during their chorus speeches, they would still fiddle with their purses and turn away to light their cigarettes.
Having played in a chorus, I know that space is very important, in terms of the chorus holding their own space, and the chorus relating to the main characters in different spaces throughout the play. A chorus amplifies emotion, underscores relationships and highlights changing power dynamics. This chorus did none of those. Unfortunately, I felt that Katie Mitchell tried too hard to make “Women of Troy” modern and hip, and instead, ended up making a piece that more resembled a TV melodrama than a piece of epic theatre.