The drama of the ancient world resonates in the present day in the new production of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, currently being staged by the Actors Touring Company at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre. Based on a little-known legend, the play tells the story of the fifty daughters of Danaos, who flee Egypt to escape forced marriage to their cousins, the sons of King Aegyptos.
They seek refuge in the Greek city of Argos, where they enter the temple of Zeus, seeking protection from the god on the grounds that they are descended from Zeus’ mortal lover Io, who was transformed into a cow by his jealous wife. Danaos (Omar Ebrahim) warns that the sons of Aegyptos are coming to take the women by force. They appeal to Pelasgus (Oscar Batterham), the king of Argos, who in turn asks the citizens of the city to vote on whether they should offer sanctuary and risk inviting war.
Ramin Gray’s production, from a new translation of the play by David Greig, highlights the parallels between Aeschylus’s play and current events early and often: there are refugees from the Middle East crossing the sea to seek sanctuary in Greece and being met with suspicion, women speaking up about the widespread nature of sexual violence and accusing those in power, and the fate of a nation hinging on a controversial vote.
At the same time, the production aspires to be the closest thing possible to recreating Classical drama in the modern world, introducing its tropes in a way designed to appeal to a contemporary audience. Before the play begins, a Manchester City Council official thanks the Arts Council and other sponsors and pours a libation, following the Greek tradition of beginning a performance by thanking the play’s patrons. The majority of the story is told by the chorus – who, uniquely in Greek drama, are also the protagonists, as the eponymous suppliant women, and are onstage throughout. Gemma May, whose character sometimes takes on the role of leader and spokeswoman to her sisters, is the only professional actress, with the amateur cast around her ranging in age from 16 to 25.
They deliver powerful speeches and choral odes – accompanied by a soundscape including a replica of the aulos, an ancient Greek wind instrument. The chorus acts in unison but gives the sense of one consciousness. As they fill the bare stage, enacting dramatic physicalisations and vocalisations of their fear, hope and rage, they almost seem like conduits for a greater force. The scene where the women face off against a chorus of the sons of Aegyptos, brandishing lit torches on a darkened stage as they chant threats of rape, is particularly frightening.
The notion of catharsis – involving the audience in a theatrical experience so powerful that it would cause an emotional crisis before purging them of their pity and fear – is central to Greek drama. The Suppliant Women uses its stylised production to powerfully remind the audience of the crises of the modern day, and how responding with compassion and resolve can lead to hope.
The Suppliant Women is showing at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until the 1st of April. More information can be found here.