The first recorded use of the word ‘democracy’ is in The Suppliant Women. Little wonder its tale of female refugees still feels so relevant, writes Ellie O’Byrne
FIFTY female refugees from North Africa flee cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Greece and beg protection from objectionable marriage laws in their native land.
Theatre director Ramin Gray’s latest project, The Suppliant Women, may seem like something you could read on any news website today, with themes like the plight of refugees and the power struggles of women against a patriarchy. But it was written by Greek playwright Aeschylus 2,500 years ago.
And the secret to engaging audiences with the stunningly relevant themes, Gray says, lies not in altering Aeschylus’ ancient play, but in keeping everything as true to the original as possible.
The Suppliant Women reunites Gray with Scottish playwright David Grieg; the duo worked together on the award-winning The Events in 2013.
“We wanted very much to keep the original Aeschylian dramaturgy, so I’d been on David’s back all the way to keep it as close to the original as possible,” Gray says. “David hasn’t written an adaptation; it’s a version. For example, Syria is name-checked in line four of David’s version, and it’s in line four of Aeschylus’ original. I think when people see it, because Syria is in the news, it summons a thousand images of today, but it hasn’t been changed.”
The first, and only surviving, part of what may have been a trilogy or tetralogy, The Suppliant Women charts the fate of a group of women, the Daughters of Danaus, who seek protection in the city of Argos against forced marriage in Egypt. King Pelasgus puts the fate of the women in the hands of the denizens of the city; it will be decided by the vote.
Democracy and theatre enjoyed a parallel evolution, and the very first recorded use of the word ‘democracy’ is in The Suppliant Women.
“The idea that everyone would vote on a range of issues was a new idea, and the idea that people would come to together to watch this new-fangled thing called a ‘Play,’ where there were scenes of dialogue, debate and conflict was also a new idea.”
Gray believes he’s strengthening theatre’s ability to explore issues of public life and civic responsibility by being as faithful to the democratised origins of the Greek Chorus as he is to the text of the play. “Greek Drama was, as we know, amateur chorus,” he says.
Reviving the power of the Greek chorus by assembling community casts from the cities the play is touring to, for Dublin Theatre Festival, the Dublin Danaids will be 33 local women from all walks of life.
“We recruit in each city because we want to get people who represent the range of people living in that place: poor people, rich people, black people, white people.” Gray says.
The parallels between the advent of Greek democracy and the theatrical emphasis on the chorus, Gray feels, are mirrored by our increasingly atomised world, where cynicism, personalised devices and the concerns of the individual hold sway, and theatre is dominated by the voice of the individual.
“In the past 2,000 years, the chorus has withered away and you’re left with individual actors,” he says. “At the same time, we’re now living in a political moment where civil society is really under threat from globalisation and the power of big business. People’s cynicism around politics is making it a very contested area.”
Strengthening empathy through collective imagination, the emotional investment of an audience in watching a cast from their own community is at the root of the magic of Gray’s production.
“We could have found 30 refugees and put them on stage, and I think that would have been really objectifying and patronising,” Gray says.
“It would be almost more like an installation or something. This is theatre, and theatre is about exercising your imagination, one of the core elements of being empathic.”
“So it’s really important that it’s the people of Dublin who are imaginatively taking on the role of the 50 daughters crossing the sea to Europe. By watching that process, by extension the audience have their empathetic muscles and their imaginations stretched.”
The Suppliant Women has been hailed as a feminist tour de force following its excellent reception at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh last autumn, but this may be a modern audience’s interpretation of Aeschylus’ meaning.
“The final line of the play is an invocation to the God Zeus, asking him to give equal power to all women,” Gray says.
“It’s ambiguous: does he mean equal power between women, as in not having some women more powerful than others, or does he mean equal power for women and men? The way audiences are receiving it is, ‘Let there be equal power for women and men’ but that is a very radical thing to say, certainly in the context of ancient Greece, where this would have been an entirely male affair performed and maybe even watched entirely by men.”
“Feminist is a very contemporary term, and I don’t think it accurately described what Aeschylus was setting out to do. But then again, one can’t ever really say what he was trying to do.”
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