On entering the theatre, one encounters the seats swathed in white dust covers. (You are also provided with a history of the Trojan war and the events leading up to the play, neatly printed out for your perusal on your seat.) The stage is lit with fluorescents. Stark, cool unattractive reality. (Lighting by Damian Cooper.) Along the entire back wall of the raised theatre stage there is a huge jigsaw of wooden and metal lockers which you might find in a very old gymnasium dressing room. They are either stacked horizontally or vertically, some with doors but most not. It is of a vast cinemascope width. All the pieces are second or third hand or reverse garbage finds. Down one seam in the structure there seeps a liquid like sump oil that puddles out onto part of the upstage acting area. Decrepit, ruined, functional, reclaimed. (Set and Costume design by Alice Babidge.) Julio Iglesias on a looped tape is recorded singing a glimpse of lyrics concerning “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Round and round it repeats and repeats and repeats.. It has the aural pitch of satiric kitsch and has the affect of quietly driving one crazy.. (Sound design by David Gilfillan). The forestage is a cheap and nasty blue carpet bedraggled, in areas severely worn and stained. Stained with what? Our imaginations target the likelihoods: vomit, piss, excrement, blood and fear. This is a contemporary world in some war zone. A functionary, dressed in civilian clothes (mercenaries??) with a lower half faced protective plastic mask walks across the stage purposely. The auditorium lights dim and the live musician who has arrived at the piano in front of the stage prepares (Daryl Wallis).
On a hand pulled goods trolley a hooded figure dressed in the jewels and robes of a queen is precariously rolled centre stage. The figure is lifted onto a pedestal that is only an old brown cardboard box (No marble plinth for her.). The attendant removes the jewellery, the blue trained robe, the full length court dress, penultimately the sparkling tiara and finally the black hood. Beneath is the fragile grey haired Queen of Troy in her under garments. (Robyn Nevin). (This, the reversal of the famous Brechtian device of dressing the Pope in GALILEO.) Here we see an iconic figure, the queen, revealed as a frail old woman. Someone like ourselves: a human. Soon she is joined by a hooded chorus of three other women of Troy, all once more in underwear, besmirched with blood and/or bruising, some trailing electrical attachments to their ankles. This then is a prison or holding base that resonates with the images of Abu Ghraib.
Our contemporary world is present……. and yet, it feels dated. The force of the imagery has not the impact it once may have had. It feels like History. The images so often recycled in our life encounters, that they now merely register as true but are relatively unaffecting. As imagery that only remotely emotionally engages us. (What with Climate Change issues and the threatening Economic (stock market) collapse of the world this imagery is further down our needs of urgency. A tragic observation to make.)
The production proceeds. All the performers are miked. The sound is clear but the intervention of technology between the characters and the audience seems to distance and dehumanise their spoken story. There is a distancing in the experience. I observe and listen. I am engaged in an objective place: my head, not yet my heart (my soul) my emotions. I understand but I don’t experience feelings. The speeches that Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright have fashioned from the original Euripides are powerful and image packed, yet it seems to be documentation – further distancing me. The lighting moves from the crude ugliness of the fluorescent reality to more theatrical states and colours. I become aware of the relative romantic surface gleam to sections of the performance and note the contrasts. The chorus sing but they sing anachronistically Opera, folk and cabaret/burlesque popular songs (Bizet, Mozart., Slovenian folk, "oh when your smiling" etc.) and they usually sing these pieces of popular music to counter balance ugly imagery. It is, I reflect, an often used theatrical device: To contrast the visual and the aural experience to make it easier for us to absorb. However, I am aware of the technique and I recognise it as a usual one in the theatrical armoury of Barrie Kosky’s work. The Sound scape of kitsch music choices (on a baby grand piano) and the familiar but banal sound scape of ordinary, bored life (unanswered telephone ringing, muffled, muted conversations etc ) and the artaudian application of the surround of exploding live gunshots around the auditorium and even under the seating, so that not only noise but the reverberation of the shot air vibrates my seating, is a technique I recognise. Again, my alienation from the events of the play continue and my focus on the means of communication employed by the director becomes more paramount to my experience. The physical violence is token. It is choreographed. The offered theatrical gesture of "danced" violence: physical abuse and rape, again distance me into a state of pretend. This is a representation, it is not real. My response is objectively intellectual.
Maybe, after the 8 hours of THE LOST ECHO (which I saw three times) (and much else of his other work) I have become inured to the production hallmarks of this director. The blurring of theatre genres, the usual toilet/gross settings, the cast near nude or dressed in underwear sporting blood or excrement or vomit, the oppositional use of the misery of beauty or the beauty of misery imagery, his penchant for beautiful classic music accompaniments to scenes of horror, his kitschy embracing of some popular music as humour and satiric observations etc. So, what is most shocking to me and surprising to me is that this is the first time I have had no surprises from a Barrie Kosky production. I have not been challenged. I have seen all these gestures before and they appear “Old Hat”. His theatre is usually full of confronting and clarifying demands at least in the technique he uses to tell his stories. But THE WOMEN OF TROY lacks that thrill. He seems to be repeating himself and it feels unsatisfactory. Particularly, since as Tom Wright his text collaborator tells us, that the approach to the writing has been "very much about reductionism." and this text of Euripides has been reduced, truncated to a very deliberate function and since my theatrical attention was objectively more and more engaged in the directorial style of aesthetic distancing, a richer verbal text may have balanced this. By richer I mean more density (For I truly admire the poetry of the adaptation) but it has been reduced too far for my need to attach to identify with the tragedy. By the end of the performance I and many others in the audience had been left in a place of “numbness”, “cool objectivity”, ”anaesthesia”. We applauded politely, patiently.
Of the cast, Robyn Nevin is marvellous in her handling of the great textual arias she has been provided with, especially with the opening and closing speeches. I felt the “sacking of Troy” speech was maybe a little to self consciously modulated, articulated. (Here, is a case in point of where I would argue that the vocal timbre and vulnerable emotional life of this actress would have had the double impact of sense AND emotion with her natural voice communicating to us rather than with the micro-phoned sound.) (To digress for a moment. A few years ago I attended a concert given by the great chanteuse Barbara Cooke. She sang most of her concert miked. But for her encores she “unplugged”. The difference in experiencing this artist was that miked we sat back and listened. “Unplugged” we leant forward and worked with her. We had to engage instead of having the sound given to us. In a documentary on the Broadway Theatre several of the stars of The Golden Age of Broadway suggest the demise of the American Musical began when the artist was assisted with technology. The audience just did not have to give as much to the performance and the performer had less to risk.) Melita Jurisic playing Cassandra, Andromache and Helen is particularly mesmerizing as the possessed, zombie eyed madwoman, Cassandra (White contacts in her eyes!!!!). The chorus of women Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van de Zandt and Jennifer Vuletic are concentrated and great in their contribution, especially, (along with Ms Nevin who reveals herself as a surprisingly good singer, both solo and chorus), in the Slovenian folk song episode.
So this is an interesting night in the theatre. Most of all, because, to be becalmed in the Theatre of Mr Kosky to a relative state of boredom is fairly unique in my extensive experience of his work. There is much to take from this production. The acting and musical input is outstanding, however, much like my response to the Belvoir production of ANTIGONE earlier this year I feel that the Greek Theatre repertoire has not been given the powerful chance that is inherent in these formative expressions of Western Cultures struggle to understand itself. In the original these “powerless women Of Troy gain in moral stature what they cannot achieve in actual power”. These Trojan Women of Mr Kosky and Mr Wright look more like pathetic victims of war.
The great dignity of these victims of war is greatly communicated in a film presently screening near you. WALTZ WITH BASHIR. Go and see it. I defy you not to be stunned and paralysed with the last ten minutes. And this is animated film!!!!
Playing now until 26 October. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.