When Sally Cookson’s Sleeping Beauty was staged this past Christmas at the Bristol Old Vic there was mild controversy relating to Tory MP Peter Bone labelling the reformulation of the gendered roles ‘political correctness gone mad’. If Bone felt that the slight reconfiguration of an age-old fairy tale for an audience in 2015 was all too leftie, I imagine he might literally implode were he exposed to Cookson’s latest project, The Trojan Women, with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Updated by Brendan Kennelly from Euripides’ original, The Trojan Women doesn’t have a hidden feminist agenda – it is a feminist agenda. And there is something magnificent about this honesty; this massive, screaming, howling feminism that makes this production sing. It is, in fact, not politically correct at all, but quite horribly discomforting, unpalatable and nastily truthful. It shows up the things that are still not said about women and war despite, according to Bone and Co., the insidious presence of feminists policing the arts and media.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School productions are intended to showcase young talent on its way to being fully formed, yet there is so little to separate those on stage in The Trojan Women from actors far older or more accomplished. Of an impressive cast, Hannah Bristow as Hecuba maintains a performance of an intensity that makes me expect her to collapse the moment she exits the stage and not make the curtain call. Looking like a young Helena Bonham Carter, Bristow rages, keens and howls against the injustices continually served against her.
A late monologue talking of ocean waves evokes Patti Smith lyrics and there is something very punk – perhaps Riot Grrrl at times – about Bristow and the cast. Eleanor Jackson as Cassandra delivers a skin-clawing mad scene in a torn-up silk slip stolen straight from Courtney Love’s wardrobe. Unashamedly and rawly angry as they move as one mass, this group of women reveal what is often missing in classic plays such as The Crucible, a palpable sense of the wrongness of all that has put the young women in this situation.
Paul Dennant’s lighting design illuminating Fiona Rigler’s set of polythene sheeting, brings a little of Cookson’s Jane Eyre into the Studio space and also heralds the arrival of elemental forces into the production. The city is on fire, the ocean waters crash in, a baby is smashed against the earth and screams of anguish are lost to the wind.
Despite the production largely being focused on re-claiming the voices of the women characters of Troy, the script does not unquestionably celebrate them. The group’s reaction to Helen, surrounding and taunting and using the worst of misogynist language – ‘whore’; ‘cunt’ – raises criticisms on how women treat women along with how men treat women. In contrast to Pink Mist, another play about war concurrently showing in the Bristol Old Vic main house, The Trojan Women tells a more awkward narrative. It is like running hands through hair gel: disgusting, mesmerising and hard to pick up. Pink Mist, despite its attempts to include the views of the women close to the male protagonists, still ultimately leaves them on the periphery, bringing on squash at half time. The Trojan Women goes into their hearts, their wombs, their bodies tied to the disintegrating city around them. It shows that the consequences of war rush out in directions far away from one injured soldier. It seeps into the fabric of a sling holding a tiny baby, seeps in and shatters his bones against the battlements.
The uncomfortableness of this production, the fact that seeing it may spoil your evening’s plans as you sit, making a few inarticulate noises and wondering where to go from here, only highlight its necessity. You don’t want to see it, which is exactly why you should.
The Trojan Women is on until 12th march 2016. Click here for tickets.