Apparently there’s a fine line between desire and cannibalism. Once you get past the more mannered aspects of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 drama, you will find plenty that stuns and provokes. The Trojan War is at its height. The Greeks and Trojans are locked in combat when a third force appears to wage indiscriminate warfare on both. Warrior queen Penthesilea leads her Amazons into battle with one aim: capture young warriors and bring them back to their capital in chains. Custom dictates that they must overthrow a man in battle before claiming him as a lover. When Penthesilea falls for the equally ferocious hero Achilles, their pride and alien cultures can only lead to tragedy. Their unwillingness to compromise on their ideals makes for powerful, maddening theatre. Distorted by two cultures that prize prowess in war above softer emotions, love and lust turn violent. Penthesilea and Achilles act out their desires with weapons and engage in a ferocious, literal battle of the sexes.
Kleist takes the germ of an extant myth and uses it to convey his theme in the most devastating way possible. The result is an alternate version of a Greek legend which moves inexorably towards a gory end. Joel Agee’s translation from the German is muscular and fluid, and the production’s addition of powerful choreography skillfully updates 19th century dramatic sensibilities for the modern stage. The gender war has rarely been this brutal. The battle scenes are deafening and pound with frenzied intensity, with the actors’ physicality overcoming an initial distance between characters and audience. The female actors put on a noticeably superior performance to the men, who were hampered by a laboured expository passage. The interaction between the Amazons is what really sells the show on an emotional level. Rayyah McCaul as the wild-eyed Penthesilea gives by far the most exciting performance – her interpretation is focused and truly outstanding. Overall, this is an effective staging of a drama well worth considering.