While transplanting tragedy onto hospital beds is no real innovation, the Gate theatre's 'version' of The Trojan Women more than earns its place with a gutsy and eloquent rendition of Euripides and its well-portrayed world of grief, grit and the occasional wisecrack.
From the introductory video sequences featuring Roger Lloyd Pack as Poseidon with a Ron Jeremy vibe and Tamsin Greig a bubbly-but-depraved Athena, Caroline Bird's script bursts forth as a centrepiece of the play; modernising yet poetic. It's a fittingly detached lead-up to the play's showcase of post-war trauma and despair, fronted by Dearbhla Molloy as captive queen Hecuba and Lucy Ellinson as a lone chorus member.
Molloy's Hecuba is a crumbling pillar of majesty, reduced to a hospital gown but still affecting graces to Ellinson's undazed commoner. The twosome's terse relationship is at the core of the play's exploration of victimhood is one of the production's chief delights, as we see the two soften and harden towards each other as bad news and worse news filters in.
They are complemented by the triform Louise Brealey, who by turns plays a childishly demented Cassandra, downtrodden mother Andromache, and the inescapable Helen of Troy. A lengthy eyeful of Brealey fully nude in the last role establishes her as a temptress to remember, her stark sexuality all the more poignant for the play's repeated discussion of rape. As the one who brought death upon both sides of the Trojan war, Helen is also a magnificent lightning-rod for the vitriol of the other characters, particularly Hecuba, who has lost everything because of the actions of her former favourite.
Though this is a play led by the ladies, the two male characters add a lot of substance. Jon Foster as the jailer Talthybius, pleasant but made brutal by circumstance, shifts disconcertingly from soldier to carer based on the proximity of his superiors. By contrast, commander Menelaus, played by Sam Cox, is pure blackness, an emblem of the bloodlust that set the play's events in motion. His lyrical thuggishness brings to life the spectre of enslavement to cruel, lustful masters which has hung over the women from the start.
Though our knowledge of the world outside the ward in which the action is set is limited and, as per the conventions of Greek theatre, little happens on stage, this waiting-room drama of war is given an excellent refresh by the staging of Bird and director Christopher Haydon. It proves wholeheartedly, as do Molloy and Ellison to each other, that there is plenty of life in the old masters yet.