First published in The Times, Thursday October 6 2016
You couldn’t find a bolder statement of intent than this, the first significant production of David Greig’s tenure as artistic director of the Lyceum in Edinburgh. The co-production with the Actors Touring Company returns its audience to the dawn of drama, with a version (penned by Greig himself) of one of the oldest surviving plays, written by Aeschylus and first performed in competition as part of the Athenian Festival of Dionysus in about 470BC.
Great age aside, the piece couldn’t be more prescient. The plot revolves around the arrival on the shores of Argos of 50 women, the daughters of Danaus, fleeing forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins. Their plea for sanctuary, delivered as one voice in a spare, pounding poetry, presents King Pelasgus (Oscar Batterham) with a dilemma, which he cleverly resolves by passing the decision downwards to the people of Argos in a democratic vote.
Pic: Stephen Cummiskey
Batterham is excellent as the smooth, light-tenored ruler, but the real star of the show is the titular chorus, incarnated by volunteers who have been drilled to perfection over months of rehearsal. In Ramin Gray’s production the rhythms of the writing tightly entwine with a sparsely beautiful soundtrack of percussion and ancient aulos pipes to truly hypnotic effect. The action is presented over 90 minutes without interval: it is difficult to see how such a high level of performing intensity could be sustained for much longer.
Pic: Stephen Cummiskey
Occasionally the spell is broken. The arrival of the women’s pursuers on the beach should be a terrifying moment, but here the small band of Egyptians never pose much of a threat to their formidable prey. Still, Gray’s production, presented on a raised and extended platform that adds unprecedented depth to the Lyceum stage, resounds with memorable, often pithily funny lines (“How does it work, this thing called democracy?”) and imagery that lingers in the mind. The scene in which the women hunker down for a night on the beach, uncertain of their fate, lit only by torchlight, is particularly haunting, not least because it so closely mirrors events happening on shores near our own.