November 18, 2004

Stark beauty lost in chorus line

17 November, 2004
Murray Bramwell

Euripides’ Trojan Women
Adapted by Rosalba Clemente and Dawn Langman

State Theatre Company of South Australia.
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
16 November
Tickets $ 17 – $ 45.
Bookings BASS 131 246.
Until 27 November, 2004

Even in Euripides’ grim repertoire there are few more harrowing plays than The Trojan Women. His subject, once again, is the cruelty and pity of war. The occasion is the gloating victory of the Greeks over the Trojans and the suffering of civilians, especially the women. His theme, that triumphalism ends badly, that the beginnings never know their ends, is a bitter and timely reminder that even when you think are winning you are already losing.

Director Rosalba Clemente has many challenges in a play with so little plot and so much misery, and her ambitious production and free translation bring some difficulties of their own. Using the full dimensions of the Playhouse stage, she has cast more than seventy performers including a chorus of sixty women. Mark Shelton’s minimal design uses depth and light to enhance the spectacle. The women in loose brown shifts and soldiers in contemporary battle greens, are sprayed with searching spotlights but also, bathed in soft yellows like an heroic workerist painting.

Privileging the many, however, creates a difficulty with the central performances. The sheer visibility of the chorus requires them to constantly perform beyond their capabilities and this undermines the stillness and authority the play needs. It is a daunting task for Dawn Langman to carry the production as Hecuba. She is a dignified and determined presence but in the final scene she seems, like many actors faced with the role of Hecuba, to have run out ways to play woe. Caroline Mignone is memorable as Andromache, surrendering her child to death, Martha Lott is impressive as Helen, the original trophy wife, Roger Newcombe is excellent as the self-serving Menelaus and Alirio Zavarce highlights the conflict in Talthybius, the soldier doomed to obey orders.

The timeliness of Euripides theme has encouraged Clemente and her collaborator Langman to update the text with anachronistic references to photographs and wars for oil, while Helen is recast as the face that launched a thousand porn sites. There is a sense of too many targets in such additions. The music, composed and performed live by Philip Griffin and Ross Daly and three other musicians, is a strong feature although the intriguing, hypnotic Balkan and Cretan stringed instruments are sometimes at odds with the distinctly English style of Griffin’s choral compositions.

This production , Rosalba Clemente’s fifteenth and final one as Artistic Director for State, has many of her excellent hallmarks – the humanity of her themes, the generosity to non-professional performers, the use of multicultural styles and a politicisation of the text, but in aiming for so much, the stark and unsparing drama of Euripides’ Trojan Women has been edged aside.

“Stark beauty lost in chorus line” The Australian, November 18, 2004, p.12.

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