Every text is changed by its context. When The Suppliant Women was first performed at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, in early October 2016, it was just over three months since the EU referendum made toxic by anti-immigration rhetoric, emblematised by the UKIP Breaking Point poster, and less than three weeks before the grim dismantling of the refugee camp in Calais. And so the production became, as Charlotte Runcie described it in her review for the Financial Times: “a timely comment on the migrant crisis… [T]hough these women are fleeing forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins rather than war in Syria[,] the questions asked are politically immediate: what do we owe refugees? How should democracies help them? And what must women do to survive?”
Just over a year later, each of those questions is still pressing, but the first two feel as visible within public debate as the dark side of the moon. Instead the focus as The Suppliant Women appears in London is that third question: what must women do to survive the multifarious insidious ways in which they are subjected to the power of men, including but not limited to sexual harrassment and abuse? That this question is unusually present just now belies its timelessness – and with that the fathomless persistence and creativity with which the universal structure of patriarchy has repeatedly, over millennia, successfully dismissed its challenge.
In case this sounds vague, here is some of the specific context for how I watched The Suppliant Women on Wednesday 15 November at 7.30pm, a series of tweets by theatre blogger Megan Vaughan:
The Young Vic has a new show opening tonight, but they’ve not tweeted about it in 14 days. I’m not going to pretend I know exactly why, but I’m pretty sure it’s because the director is facing allegations of sexual misconduct.
Lyn’s article today shows us clearly that we have a collective responsibility as an industry to stand together and make it clear that sexual abuse, harrassment, bullying is NEVER ACCEPTABLE.
While sending huge love to David Greig and teams at ATC/Lyceum/Young Vic, I won’t be going to The Suppliant Women, or any show directed by Ramin Gray, until appropriate action is taken re his behaviour towards women.
There are also loads of critics and bloggers preparing to attend press night at the YV this week. Maybe you are just doing your job and haven’t heard about Ramin Grey’s harrassment before now. But still, please, in solidarity, DON’T GO.
Of course Megan’s plea gave me pause. If I decided to review The Suppliant Women anyway, it’s because I question the solidarity of silence when, as Audre Lorde wrote in The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, silence offers no protection. Arguably not going might mean standing outside the theatre with a protest placard, but I decided not to do that either. Doing my job, in this instance, is more than writing about the work, the text. It’s scrutinising the context.
Within the auditorium, Gray creates his own context for how The Suppliant Women might be watched. In keeping with original ancient Greek practices, the production opens with a libation, an offering made by one of the dignitaries who has given money to support the act of theatre taking place. On Wednesday 15 November, that person was Eleanor Kelly, chief executive of Southwark Council. That’s Southwark Council who, according to a blog post published on 14 November 2017, by activist group Housing Action Lambeth and Southwark “hold top place for the local authority with the most number of homeless households in Bed & Breakfast/hostel accommodation over the 6 week limit”. The same Southwark Council that, according to figures published in July 2016 by another activist group, SE London Sisters Uncut has “1,270 empty council homes, yet … turns away 47% of homeless survivors of domestic violence”. Whatever democracies should do to help the vulnerable, the minority, it doesn’t look like this. Viewed through that lens, the libation – Kelly pours red wine over the front of the stage – begins to lose its romantic aspect, its spiritual dimension, and comes across instead as an act of waste.
This is in sharp contrast to the rest of the production, which wastes nothing. Lizzie Clachan’s design is industrial in its spareness: flagstone floor, a proscenium arch tucked far back, from which the Suppliant Women escape the theatre of war and enter the theatre of democracy and debate. John Browne’s score limits the musical palette to percussion and a reconstructed aulos (a kind of double recorder), but finds abundance in this austerity, its sinewy declamations sinking deep into the pulse. David Greig’s adaptation of Aeschylus is taut as the strings of a violin and the cast – especially the chorus of local young women – bring to it their own muscular musicality. And that muscularity is enhanced by Sasha Milavic Davies’ movement direction, which has the group expand and contract across the stage like a giant octopus, sometimes swelling with indignation, sometimes sending its tentacles scattering.
As collective endeavour, as act of community, in so many ways the text of The Suppliant Women is perfect. But the context disrupts that, undermines it. It’s discombobulating to hear these women who are seeking to escape rape cast their pleas up to Zeus, the mythological figure who did most to deify rape. No sooner have the people of Argos democratically voted to house the refugees, and seen off the men who have pursued them, than they’re lecturing the women on the importance of marriage. The suppliant women respond with an emphatic chant, hammered over and over: “equal power to all women”. It’s an extraordinary moment, galvanising, utterly convincing – and utterly flawed. Because equal power to do what exactly? To maintain the Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre? To support anti-abortion legislation? To vote for Theresa May, despite everything she has done to dismantle the rights of refugees? To vote Trump? The shame that these should be things that decades, centuries even, of feminist struggle for equal power has brought women.
Power, even equal power, isn’t a solution to the ongoing question of what women must do to survive but a restatement of the problem. Shuffling a few men out of power makes little difference if the culture power generates remains intact. It could be argued that Greig, Brown and Gray are themselves powerless here: that their fidelity to Aeschylus and his culture of Greek tragedy is absolute, and so all difficulties with the text can be ascribed there. And yet I find myself wondering why it is that we must build cultural sympathy for the plight of modern refugees upon an ancient story about women threatened with rape, and what it means to generate empathy through that threat.
A culture is shaped by the stories repeatedly told and retold, and the use of women as a mouthpiece – however laudable, however exhilarating – doesn’t make any more palatable the inevitability of the stories that stick. A specific set of decisions have been taken by men to maintain the cultural currency of this 2,500-year-old play, and one of the results is a limiting of space for the storytelling of women. In the current climate, I’m going to refuse to see that as a helpful feminist statement.
The Suppliant Women is on until 25 November 2017 at the Young Vic. Click here for more details.