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December 12, 2007

David Wootton sees Euripides's The Women of Troy and finds his thoughts drifting away to the sub prime mortgage market: Euripides's The Women of Troy at the National

Posted by David Wootton

Euripides's The Women of Troy
in a version by Don Taylor
directed by Katie Mitchell
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory 28th November 2007 - 27th February 2008

Katie Mitchell is, on a good night, a great director. I've seen three of her productions before this one, and liked them all. I've heard that her Waves (a version of the Woolf novel) was stupendous. Alas what we have here is a great director on an off night, indeed in such bad form that this production brings out, in retrospect, weaknesses in her previous work.

In saying this, I am agreeing with the majority of the critics who attended, as I did, the press night. There's a fine review, based on the performance a night or two earlier, at westendwhingers (a site I hadn't visited before but will again). I've found two very favourable accounts in the Independent (and a third less so); the review in the Observer is generally very positive; but most of the critics have been rather dismayed, and some (the Telegraph, for example) have been downright hostile.

The first problem is that Katie Mitchell is given to repeating herself. She has a range of signature effects - women dancing in ball gowns, women powdering their noses, slow motion, aggressive sound effects - which she repeats from production to production. They've become a sort of nervous tic. Here we have one new (I think) trademark effect which has been praised by some and has bemused others - a character walking backward through time. We can expect to see this repeated in future productions.

The second is that this doesn't seem to me a very good translation - or version, as it calls itself (and I've read a bit of it, as well as sitting through it): an uncomfortable mixture of the antique and the contemporary, the poetic and the prosaic. Mitchell seems to have been unhappy with it too: she has cut and altered it, but the result is neither a modern nor a classical text.

The third (and perhaps related) problem is that much of what is said on stage is barely audible. The critics have particularly gone for Sinead Matthews (Cassandra) for throwing her lines away, but she is supposed to be half mad and so has some excuse, more than the rest of the cast. One has to assume that the director didn't want them to be audible. Even when it is audible it is often spoken roughly and clumsily, as if this were a dress rehearsal, not a first night. The fourth - well, this could be a very long list, so let's pause here for a moment.

The play itself is a wonderful opportunity. There was a rash of Greek tragedies on the West End stage to greet the Iraq war, and this is, as it were, intended to remind us that the war isn't over.

Euripides' play was written shortly after the Athenians had massacred the male population of Melos and enslaved the women, so it was profoundly topical when first performed. Indeed this play appears to attack everything most Greeks held dear. It is against war. It is against slavery - even the enslaving of barbarians. It is against the notion that women don't really count.

Goodness knows what audiences made of it when they first saw it, but a left wing feminist director could hardly ask for a better opportunity. And Euripides can be translated into wonderful modern English, and can grip an audience by the throat - witness the wonderful recent Hecuba at the Donmar, which was everything that this production isn't.

So let us go back to our list. The big problem is that this production feels like, looks like, sounds like a mess. There's too much going on. Too many noises. Too many rapid transitions. Too much screeching. There's never a moment of silence or quiet (unless the actors are all lying down as if bewitched), never a moment of reflection, never a pause for thought.

Instead we have nudity (including Helen of Troy dancing in her knickers - one has to imagine Marlowe rotating in his grave), dance music, and industrial noises. What's the point? The play is about a group of women who are about to be shipped off into slavery. They have already lost their husbands, their children, their city, everything that makes them who they are, and soon they will lose each other. It is, I assume, a play about mourning and grief.

But not in Katie Mitchell's version. The effect she was trying to convey can only be hysteria; but if you find yourself faced with someone who is hysterical what you try and do, if you possibly can, is stop engaging with them - and I found my thoughts drifting away from the stage to the sub prime mortgage market, which is a pretty bad sign.

Hysteria, confusion, despair - these are all rather interesting, and one could probably make a good play about them, but only, I suspect, if they were contrasted with something else. And here they aren't.

This isn't to say there weren't some good ideas. The set is a bit of a cliché (an industrial warehouse, with clanking lift and roller doors), but striking and well (that is depressingly) lit. Two men with clipboards try to manage the hysterical women - they are a clear improvement on the "soldiers" of the printed text.

The problem of how to handle the chorus is solved so well that one forgets that there is a chorus; as for the gods of the original text, they are simply eliminated, which may be wise. I was even prepared to accept the big band music and the ball room dancing… But no, overall, it's a mess.

And looking back this makes me think I was much too kind about Mitchell's Iphigenia, which was rather similar. Some hated that, but I, and most people, liked it - and I now realise that I was wrong. Because that too was too noisy, too mannered, too repetitive, too indifferent to real feelings, too careless in its transplantation of an ancient text into a modern world.

It is as if Katie Mitchell simply tried to repeat that success; and what she has managed to do is demonstrate that even that was really a failure, not a success. My advice is, don't go, unless you are so committed a Katie Mitchell fan that you think even her mistakes must be of significance.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York. He is the author of Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates.

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