A 2,500 year-old story with pungent modern resonances - The Suppliant Women, Young Vic, review
At the back of the stage at the Young Vic, a line of women slowly emerge, holding sticks wrapped in scraps of fluttering white cloth and swaying together in unison like a boat buffeted by the waves. They are refugees, from ancient Egypt 2,500 years ago, when Aeschylus's verse drama was written, but they are also, of course, refugees of today, making their way now, just as they did then, across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe to seek asylum from persecution.
Aeschylus's ancient choral ritual is one of the plays that mark the start of western drama, an ostensibly simple story of women in flight requesting sanctuary on Argos, whose inhabitants, led by King Pelasgos, then vote on whether to allow them to stay. But, as David Greig's elegant new version makes viscerally clear, this is also a story for all our times: a parable of persecution and salvation that pierces entrenched anxieties over migration, nationhood, gender relations and our responsibility to our fellow man. When it premiered in 2016, it reverberated deeply with the global refugee crisis dominating the headlines. Now, at a moment saturated in allegations of sexual harassment, it also feels like a female cry of fury against systemic male sexual violence.
Ramin Gray's modern-dress touring production uses a new cast each time from the local community – this one, from Southwark and Lambeth, is outstanding. Furthermore, it's a grass roots gesture that enshrines the spirit of collectivity and communality in Aeschylus's drama far more effectively than any professional cast could. Gray makes several further overt flourishes to authenticity: at the performance I saw, the Conservative MP John Glen gave the libation; the live percussive score includes an aulos, an ancient Greek wind instrument.
Yet it's the way Gray, working with music director John Browne and Greig's insistent, poetic script, honours so beautifully the incantatory rhythms and percussive heartbeat of Aeschylus's original that makes this exceptional. The synthesis of polyphonic singing, music and movement touches on something that feels truly atavistic. The chorus move together as one, switching in an instant from keening lament to uninhibited celebration and driven ever onwards by an urgency that is both aesthetic and a literal bid for survival. Some of the harmonic singing, notably the song in honour of Io, daughter of a former king of Argos, and during which the chorus create on stage the outline of a cow in ash, is among the most beautiful I've heard for some time.
In the end, the citizens of Argos vote to allow the women to stay – a sobering lesson in empathy for our times.
Until Nov 25. Tickets: 020 7922 2922; youngvic.org
-- Sent from my Linux system.