In ancient Greece, it was the practice before any theatrical performance to name those citizens who had financed it, and for a respected citizen to give “the libation” to the Gods. 2,500 years after Aeschylus wrote his now largely-lost Danaid trilogy—only this first play, and a scrap of the third, have survived—director Ramin Gray resurrects this civic tradition with (at least on opening night) Willie Rennie MSP giving thanks to the show’s funders (most notably the paying audience, who provide £5 out of every £10 spent on the production), before pouring a bottle of quality wine along the edge of the stage.
a heartfelt, impressive theatrical experience
This remembrance of theatre as a civic ceremony is underscored by Gray’s casting of local Edinburgh people in its large chorus (led by the truly impressive professional actor Gemma May); thankfully, they provide a far-from-amateurish mixture of vocals, dance and movement under choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies and vocal leader Stephen Deazley. They are almost constantly accompanied by a rhythmic, nuanced score by musical director John Browne. The script, adapted here by David Greig, is equally rhythmic and heightened—spoken words and percussive score constantly entwined and supportive of each other. The result is a heartfelt, impressive theatrical experience, though aspects of its ancient roots can’t help but jar in the translation. Who can hear the name “Argos” and not think of a certain catalogue retail chain?
The titular Suppliant Women are 50 Egyptians who flee from arranged marriages, seeking sanctuary in Greece, the home of their ancestor. This causes a real headache for the King of the Greek city Argos (Oscar Batterham): as he puts it, “to bar them brings horror, to welcome them brings war”, the latter with angry husbands-to-be already chasing the women across the Mediterranean. The King’s solution is to put the decision to a public vote—The Suppliant Women, apparently being the first written appearance of the word “democracy”. Following some impressive—albeit off-stage—oratory, the people of Argos agree to let the women in.
The play’s questions around how communities welcome asylum seekers, and the extent to which the latter are pressured to “respect” their hosts’ culture, feel just as pertinent today as they were two and a half millennia ago. Yet, by choosing The Suppliant Women as his title rather than the Wikipedia-favoured title The Suppliants, Greig’s emphasis is clearly on those fleeing specifically misogynistic regimes throughout time. This is an in “interesting” choice given that the women—willing to kill themselves rather than be forced into marriage with men they despise—are nevertheless constantly reliant on men—their ship’s captain Danaus (a fatherly Omar Ebrahim), the King and even that most sex-crazed of the Ancient Greek Gods, Zeus, to whom the women constantly call upon for protection.
Overall, this is an impressive, instinctive piece of theatre, but there’s inevitably one specific context in which it must be viewed. A couple of guest shows notwithstanding—including Dundee Rep’s touring production of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil—this co-production with Actors Touring Company is effectively Greig’s calling card as the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s new Artistic Director. If nothing else, The Suppliant Women certainly exemplifies his early promises to open the Lyceum up to the wider city in which it is based, and to innovate and forge new creative partnerships—all while ensuring a continued relevance in the work to the world we live in today. The Suppliant Women is undoubtedly an impressive, distinctive introduction to Greig’s tenure; an admittedly somewhat startling promise of things to come.