AN ANCIENT CRY, A TIMELESS THRILL
Across 25 centuries comes a harsh cry: not of war, not from savage male throats but from a swaying, chanting, defiant chorus of young women demanding, in the name of the gods and of humanity, freedom, asylum and choice. Aeschylus’ early play , a fragment of a lost trilogy, could hardly be more topical. Firstly because the Danaids, arriving on the shore of Argos to beg asylum of King Pelagius, are refugees. Secondly because because they are women refusing to be treated as chattels. Threatened with forced marriage in Egypt, they have taken ship, occupied the sacred temple and assure the king that they will, if denied, turn to “the one god who never refuses asylum…death” and hang themselves by their black veils from the holy statues.
They mean it. They deliver great powerful speeches (what is that ancient magic in a tight chorus that shakes the heart?). They express both plea and defiance, fear and pride. Sometimes they sing , sometimes voice deep ancient cries of oi and ai! The 27 bodies often move as one with sharp precision, making shapes as if they were a single resolute creature. They are both poignant and terrifying. At one point in pitch darkness they become just points of the candle-lanterns each carries, until the flaring torches of their pursuers surround them and illuminate shapes of resistance, red fire and pale candlelight mingling and separating. They are never offstage, and drive the action every one of the 90 thrilling minutes.
And barring their leader (Gemma May)) they are untrained amateurs, a community chorus of Southwark locals pledged only to rehearse for two months of free time. Credit to the trainers, including Mary King, and to the extraordinary score by John Browne which drives the tension, percussive and weird on the ancient Aulos double pipe. But credit first to the volunteers. They achieve something unique. And although marauders and townspeople also appear, the latter voicing welcome and the eternal fear that “refugees bring cold winds” – most credit to that central suppliant chorus.
The script is by David Greig who (as i noted lately in his bizarre and wonderful Prudencia Hart) has the ability to write demotic, even slangy, modern language in a rhythmic style which makes it timeless, folkish. This production by Ramin Gray for the Actors Touring Company delighted Edinburgh in 2016 and is a perfect fit for the young Vic with its tradition of community work. It is, as in each of its touring venues (350 people in total have been the choruses) prefaced in Greek tradition by a local dignitary acknowledging the honour of supporting drama and pouring a libation to Dionysius. On press night it was John Glen MP.
The women are diversely and colourfully in modern casual dress : loose , for the fluid exciting movement by Sacha Milavic Davies is central. That makes the formal politician- grey suit of Oscar Batterham’s King Pelasgos all the more strikingly apt: across the centuries he is every politician anxiously weighing up humane duty against, in his case, a real risk of war. “I am lashed to this quarrel, my boat hawsers tangled,…if a man intervenes in another man’s war he’s in trouble for ever”.
He does the right thing: the women argue a while with the townspeople over their ferocious determination to stay man-free, and Danaos the captain gently warns that migrants must always behave well and gently in their new land: “We’re foreign. We must be respectful and meek..make clear you committed no murder or crime”.
It is Europe 2017, and all times and all migrations. Wonderful.
box office 020 7922 2922 to 25 nov