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The Women of Troy

Sydney Theatre Company present THE WOMEN OF TROY by Euripides adapted by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright, at Wharf 1.

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!!!!

12 replies to “The Women of Troy”

  1. No shocking surprises, but was I dreading what they might have done with the child…
    Is anyone else bored of hearing actors using microphones? The last Three productions I’ve seen have used them (The women of Troy most successfully).

  2. A wasted night in the theatre. Kosky seems so preoccupied with his signature techniques ( which have become predictable and boring) that he forgets that he has to engage his audience. Much of the ” horror” is laughable. Particular instances of unintended humour included the endless Exorcist-style moaning and gibbering of the white-eyed Cassandra, and her emergence from the box in which she is raped with her knickers around her ankles. Her efforts to climb onto a cardboard box thus encumbered were mesmerising for the wrong reasons. It was impossible to feel for the characters. Even the death of the child was diminished in impact by the Grand Guignol events that preceded it. Nevin was ok in her major speeches but overall her performance lacked light and shade, and warmth. Dignam looked like the King of the Daleks whirling about in a motorised wheelchair. The cast sang well but that was largely a distraction. Kosky”s choice of When Youre Smiling as an ironic closing tune was feeble…He should have used Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Or perhaps he found that none of the cast could whistle??

  3. O you anonymopus bloggers shit me. who are you??

    why does everyone have to do everything new every time? why is Barrie K in so much troubkle from everybody for repeating himself? there’s no shame for a visual artist in having his/her style recognised. walking into the tate modern and knowing you are looking at a rothko from across the room is, if anything, considered a good thing in those circles. because the artist has a language, a vocabulary that they use. just because we know we are watching gillian jones doesn’t reduce her work in any way (another who suffers a lot from this criticism).

    melita jurisic is extraordinary in all three of her roles.

    when i was a boy i used to play a coin operated game where after you put 20 cents into the machine you picked up a mallet and bashed any wombats who stuck their head oput of a few random holes in the table.

    sometimes i feel like this is about as sophisticated as our arts dialogue gets. i have not heard or read one really intelligent discussion about her choices in this production, about what barrie might have been intending in this jurisic/nevin duet. just a lot of reactionary rubbish about how out there mj was and how dignified rn is and how much we – generally – loved the music.

    what is this? a bloody church fete


    tom healey

  4. Now Tom that you have had your outburst and thank you. Just what would you like to say about those points you have raised? Add to sensible informed discussion. Lets have your input to propel art discussion. Let’s get your objective observations to consider. It might lead somewhere other than abuse.

  5. So Kevin,

    isn’t blogging about passion? Why is it that you are content to have a statement like “Melita Jurisic as the beautiful Helen? Poor casting choice.” pass without an exhortation to rational debate? (speaking of abuse…)

    Or even an outrageous assumption like “Kosky seems so preoccupied with his signature techniques ( which have become predictable and boring) that he forgets that he has to engage his audience.”!!! (and abuse again in my book)

    Where to begin?? Why does/should an artist “have” to do anything?

    My issue here is in the reactionary nature of these responses. And I’m fascinated that my – admittedly – equally reactionary response should evoke such a stern and admonitory tone from you.

    Our history with our great and extreme artists feels depressing. The recent Bill Henson debacle is a good case in point.

    We love the middle – in the (somewhat paraphrased) words of Dorothy Hewett in her suburban chorus in The Chapel Perilous: “it’s little bit naughty, it’s a little bit nice (? or something) but by golly it goes down well”.

    All those vicious caricatures of Patrick White – Miss Docker et al – seem to have taught us, collectively at least, nothing at all.

    Our mainstream theatre is (largely though, crucially, NOT WHOLLY) such a wash of nonentity, mostly because we are all so hyper-aware of not losing money / audiences / and, therefore ultimately companies, that we feel frightened to make anything edgy or risky. I beat myself up regularly over this failing I perceive in myself and then read drivel like the above and realise that I am being nothing more than cold-bloodedly sensible.

    Melba – probably apocryphal but I still love it – once advised another Australian soprano worried about programming for her homecoming tour to Australia to “GIVE ‘EM MUCK”.

    I was so angry on our (Australians) behalf when I first heard this story as a teenager, so anti-europe and the perceived snobbery. Sadly, 25 years later, I know exactly what she meant and why she said it. I don’t know that I would ever say it myself but I understand the impulse.

    It’s not that we’re stupid, or behind or disadvantaged in any way. It’s that, as a society we are so conservative, so frightened of making statements, of EXPLORING ideas that most of our art necessarily lives in the shadows. And our great cutting-edge artists have to leave, unless they fancy a career littered with the sort of scorn and derision characterised by these anonymous posters (as well as the mainstream press and, in Henson’s case, the PM of the country).

    It’s our loss and it’s a loss I feel most keenly in the abstract as well as the actual. It’s not just about who or what we are losing but also what is yet unborn, what might never come to pass.

    All this puts me in mind of the great Tony Kushner and what he gives Roy Kohn to say to Joe Pitt in Angels Pt 1 as he tries to talk him into taking the biggest risk of his life:

    “Learn at least this. What you are capable of.”

    tom healey

  6. What Tom said. What is reasoned about an abusive comment about an actor’s physical appearance?

    Still waiting to see WOT, since the opening night has been cancelled here due to illness in the cast. But I’m looking forward to it with deep interest (and can’t wait to see Jurisic on stage again). Kosky is one of our great theatrical minds, with the courage to explore extremity, and the intelligence and skill to do so. I do get sick of people telling me about what Kosky “does”, to the point where younger audience members wonder when they will see a “typical” Kosky show, because all they’ve seen, according to what they hear, is “atypical” Kosky. Bizarre. As is the other constant slander that his work is all about “ego”. (A critic said to me, after seeing The Tell-Tale Heart, that Kosky’s invisible presence on stage as a pianist was simply a reflection of his “ego”, a not uncommon and in fact artistically insupportable Melbourne comment… v depressing). These are just easy avoidances of engagement with the actual experience.

    And no, it’s not about whether one “likes” it or not. I haven’t “liked” all Kosky’s work. But it is always worthy of attention.

  7. Tom, Thank you. My note was not meant to be “stern”. It was meant to invite you to talk more about your passion for the Art. You have, and I think it is important and “grand” as Mr Shaw might have said. Alison has followed on and now let us see what else might ensue. With all three of our passionate expressions, and Mr Waites as well (and others), there might be more than “reactionary abuse” on these sites. However each one of us can only register our experience of the event. Each one of us responds from the sum total of our life experience’s up to that point of viewing. All my world, oth its objective/subjective self, are being added to in the flight of the present second. The theatre is an emphemeral but personal experience. Everyone has chosen to surrender their Time, and to be crass but practical their money, so they too can speak.

  8. Kevin,
    I do agree that everyone has their right to speak out. But where are these anonymous “commentuers” now that the big guns are out?

    In fact, having been lucky enough to work on the show (much owed in fact to tom..) I have been able to hear some of the comments about the show that punters spill as they are leaving the auditorium, and I have to say, that however horrible or uneducated the comment may be, I LOVE the fact that it has stirred something in them so passionately. It has caused a reaction without them realising.

    My favourite comment was a man who yelled out quite loudly (once the cast had left the stage I might add..) “SELF INDULGENT RUBBISH”

    Another comment left from one of the first previews was “And they call that entertainment?” Ha!

    People are talking, people are disgussing.. and I’m so glad that it is stirring the pot.. but it seems as though the pot is only so deep. Come on people!! Look a little deeper.. what is this story about! Why are we still telling it? I can assure you, it is not to assist in the inflation of Kosky’s head.

    A lady the other evening (after finally opening In beautiful Melbourne) hit the nail on the head “isn’t it horrendous.. After all these years, we are still behaving the same way”
    Thank you!!

    I’m so glad that lady was more concerned with the story itself, than how hot Helen was going to be.

    And I’m sure if they had cast Helen based on her looks, Mr/Ms Anonymous would be the first to comment on
    that as well.


  9. i saw the performance last night and was disappointed on quite a few levels. On the pluses I found it strong as an anti-war political statement, and I thought the performances by the actors, particularly nevin, were strong. But this adaption neither gave us the original richness of the text, nor was it something that affected me in any emotional way. I felt that the director was trying to resort to shock ‘gimmicks’ (contrasting music, gun shots and choreographed violence) to make an impact on the audience, but that even that I reacted against – it seems too forced. I don’t know whether it is a flaw of the original text (whether it fairly thin in characterisation and therefore building empathy with the audience and interest), or the adaption – but I know by the end I was glancing at my watch quite a few times waiting for it to end.

  10. Finally saw WOT. I have to say that I’m pretty mystified that it left you unmoved KJ (tho wildly differing subjectivities are part of the experience of theatre). I could hardly bear what I was feeling, helpless grief that went deeper than tears. God those Greeks were stark. And this production revealed just how stark they were.

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