Review: The Suppliant Women (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

David Greig gives Aeschylus’ ancient play a modern re-working in Edinburgh

Oscar Batterham (King) and the Chorus of The Suppliant Women
Oscar Batterham (King) and the Chorus of The Suppliant Women
© Stephen Cummiskey

Fifty women, fleeing forced marriage and rape, have escaped from Egypt and sailed across the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Greece. No, not a quotation from today’s BBC News website, but the plot of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women.

Written 2,500 years ago, the themes of the drama are uncomfortably close to our time, sometimes shockingly so, and one of the great strengths of this, David Greig‘s new version of the play, is how often you find yourself catching your breath at some of the subject matter. The citizens of Argos, like those of 21st century Hungary, hold a vote to decide whether to let the migrants in, and the debate rages over whether their arrival will endanger the integrity of the state. King Pelasgus mistrusts them because they "look foreign". If he takes them in then it might provoke war with Egypt, but is that his war, and should it be? "The worries of women and exiles are endless", say the Chorus, but we don’t need ancient Greeks to tell us that.

This is Greig’s first Lyceum production since taking over the theatre’s artistic directorship. It’s a bold move to go right back to the origins of western drama for his first piece, but his way with the language is a triumph, as are the many dazzling touches that he brings to the show.

Chief among these is the role of the Chorus, the fifty asylum seekers. Greig and his director, Ramin Gray, have recruited a Chorus of young amateurs from the Edinburgh area. Not only does this lend the Chorus tremendous youthful vigour, but it grounds the performance in the people of the local community; a powerful statement of Greig’s intent as the Lyceum’s new boss. The Chorus’ achievement is remarkable, whether they are acting as one, chanting their lines in unison, or responding to the promptings of individuals, most notably leader Gemma May. The electricity of a genuine collective achievement radiates off the stage, and rests in the memory far more than the gifted individual performances of Oscar Batterham’s King or the Danaus of Omar Ebrahim.

The other great plank of the show’s success, though, is the ever-present music, specially composed by John Browne, running through the whole evening and energising the beat of the language, as well as creating remarkable atmosphere. The consistent rhythmic thrust allows them successfully to realise the ritualistic elements of the play, from the opening libations (given tonight by a slightly awkward Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats) to the chanting of the play’s moral at the end. More than any other Greek drama I’ve seen, Greig has built a bridge between the ritual of ancient Athens and the expectations of modern theatregoers.

The speaker at the beginning tells us that we will "find ourselves reflected in this strange and ancient mirror". And how! This is an exhilarating show, rich with resonance and power. Rush to Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, to see it while you can.

The Suppliant Women runs at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until 15 October, then tours.