The Suppliant Women at The Royal Exchange Manchester

There couldn’t be a more timely play than the one I watched last Saturday afternoon with the boyfriend. The play was called The Suppliant Women and I attended the opening performance at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

When I originally booked the play I knew nothing about it but I’d been keen to see something at The Royal Exchange ever since I moved up here and I was immediately drawn to this one.

Written by Aeschylus and directed by Ramin Gray, the first performance of this production of The Suppliant Women took place on the 1st October at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. However, the play dates back over. 2,5oo years to the fifth century BC.

The Suppliant Women forms part of a trilogy which recounts the story of 50 daughters of Danaos who made the perilous journey from Egypt to Argos to seek sanctuary from forced marriages to their cousins. The other two parts of the trilogy were lost and this partly explains the abrupt ending of the play (which my boyfriend also found a little frustrating). I won’t give anything away about the ending but with a running time of an hour and 25 minutes, it’s clear that Aeschylus intended the story to continue on, exploring the repercussions of the women’s decision to seek sanctuary in Greece.

As for the cast, aside from the small group of professional actors such as Oscar Batterham as King Pelasgus, Omar Ebrahim as both Danaos and the Egyptian Herald and the Chorus Leader Gemma May, the bulk of the cast including the Suppliant Women themselves, were compromised of volunteers, as we are told in the introduction,  would have been the norm when the play was originally performed in Greece. The ladies did a fantastic job at evoking the fear and trepidation of arriving in a strange country entirely at the mercy of its inhabitants.

It’s the play’s emphasis on both the rights of women and the power of democracy that really brought home the play for me. Sitting down to write this I couldn’t help but think of yesterday’s terror attack in London and the assailants attempt to threaten the democratic traditions enshrined in the Houses of Parliament and Westminster.

It also made me reflect on the world as it stands today with the rise of Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, his seeming lack of respect for women and his refusal to welcome those in dire need. Certainly the parallels between what is happening in the world today with the migrant crisis further compounds the relevance of this play to contemporary audiences. One cannot fail to see the link between the experiences of The Suppliant Women and those we see seeking sanctuary from the war in Syria. There was a line where Danaos, the women’s father, talks about the importance of trying to fit into Greek society, of integrating to a new way of life and the dangers of not appearing grateful enough to their host country.

Politics aside, I found myself utterly mesmerised by bot the singing of the chorus and the noteworthy musicians Ben Burton on percussion and Callum Armstrong with the aulos. With a play light on dialogue the sound production becomes an integral part of the  experience. A special nod also has to go out to the choreographer Sasha Milavis Davies and the movement coach, Josephine Hepplewhite. With so many actors on stage at ne time, the movements were beautifully choreographed and along with the music, conveyed the plight but also the defiance of the Suppliant Women. The actresses worked in harmony together, their voices merging seamlessly into one and they perfectly carried off the feminist undertones to the play.

Experiencing the play in the round added to the intimacy of the production. No doubt a challenge for some actors, this seemed to particularly suit the size of the cast. It was also a treat to watch actor Don Warrington pouring wine around the edge of the set after his libation, thereby opening the play on the night I attended. Apparently this was an ancient custom, ensuring the production can go ahead.

The Suppliant Women is showing at The Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester until the 1st April so if you have a free hour and a half free then I’d recommend heading on down and checking this little gem out.

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