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War on the stage

"Trojan Women" and "Arab Nights" reviewed.

The Trojan Women
Gate Theatre, London W1

Arab Nights
Soho Theatre, London W11

After the struggle, the struggle. War doesn’t end with armistice, nor revolutions with resignation. The past needs dismantling and some alternative future installing in its place. Change is easy. Transition is hard. In The Trojan Women, Euripides shows us the demolition. Troy’s women – her widows and grieving mothers – become the spoils of war, divvied up among enemy generals as concubines and slaves.

Caroline Bird’s excoriating, if awkward, contemporary spin for the Gate Theatre has “the crème de la femme” await their fates in the mother-and-baby unit of a women’s prison. Cartoon animals are stuck to the walls. Below, a quivering expectant mother is handcuffed to a bed. You see her bruises before her bump. Two beds down, Hecuba (Dearbhla Molloy), “a queen without a city,” sparks up a cigarette and complains about the air con. Her pregnant cellmate clasps a duvet to her face to protect the child inside. Even in these end-times, solidarity isn’t given a second’s thought. “We’re not the same class of woman,” Molloy miaows.

That pregnant woman is, essentially, us. She is Bird’s Chorus, as nameless as she is helpless. No one listens to her pleas nor her sense. Played by Lucy Ellinson, an actress who makes every artistic choice a matter of personal politics, the Chorus is a clenching, cramping cold-sweat of a woman; excruciating to watch. By the end, both her duvet and child will be snatched away.

Her ordinariness is matched by that of their warden, Talthybius (a plodding and genial Jon Foster). He only ever obeys orders, but that compliance, siding with superiors against his peers, is crime enough. He could dish out those egg mayo sarnies all day and still not atone for it.

Even in despair, class divides. Molloy’s Hecuba – imagine Ab Fabwritten by J G Ballard – gets special treatment, as do her daughters, Cassandra and Andromache, and her son’s wife, Helen of Troy (here, “the face that launched a thousand dicks”). For some reason, the last three are all played – and smartly differentiated – by Louise Brealey (Molly from Sherlock). Bird might be making some aside about the roles imposed –madwoman, mother and whore respectively – but it’s both unclear and distracting.

Ultimately, Bird’s attempt to inject some reality, to replace the familiarity of myth with the recognition of modernity, proves double-edged. Certainly, she restores the blunt horrors that are so commonplace in Greek tragedy they go unnoticed. Hecuba is unrepentant about sacrificing a daughter for the safe return of her son’s corpse and later asks straightforwardly, “Do you think it’s easy to kill a baby?” Her backstory rarely gets such a critical raking over.

However, such jolts are undermined, not enhanced, by Bird’s efforts to ground them in the banal details of sandwiches and painkillers, because she gets carried away. About to be claimed by Achilles’s son, Andromache bemoans the “fucking salmon and hollandaise tarts” that made her such a prime catch. The aim is archness but the results are glib, even flippant.

Jokes require fine-tuning, which makes the text self-conscious and that, in turn, impedes the emotional Semtex, the agony and grief at the play’s heart. It’s hard to feel for someone, no matter how desperate their circumstances, if they’re still capable of delivering a killer aside. Tonally, Bird wants to be both Catch 22 and Schindler’s List but ridicule and tragedy, if not carefully handled, can cancel each other out. Christopher Haydon’s production follows suit, caught between cartoon and torture. There’s little sense of the world beyond the ward.

If Euripides takes things apart, Metta Theatre’s Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre shows a rebuilding. Stories are the first step. Incidentally, the Arabian Nights are almost as ubiquitous as Cinderella this Christmas. Four open nationwide within ten days. Might theatremakers facing funding cuts have found solidarity with Shahrazad, the woman whose life depends on her next story? The director, Poppy Burton-Morgan, likens her to Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisa’s “burning man”. For three years, the Sultan has killed a wife each morning. Shahrazad (Dina Mousawi) willingly volunteers for marriage, risking her life to stem the executions with stories.

They’re a mixed bag, stylistically. The Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak provides a fable about a randy old goat returning from exile to hijack a younger generation’s victory. Tania El Khoury’s The Dictator’s Wife is closer to sketch, as the wife’s PA rewords her tweets while she shops for shoes online. Ghalia Kabbani shows a blogger writing about one of Shahrazad’s stories and makes a Möbius strip of the structure, since Shahrazad herself is telling the blogger’s story.

Burton-Morgan’s staging is Peter Brook by the book. A wall of 1,001 shoeboxes lines the back of the stage. Sometimes they become laptops and iPads. Shoes used as hand puppets become characters; Louboutin stilettos as armed thugs, scuffed brogues as humble protestors. It’s a smart vocabulary, referencing both shoe-based protests and western materialism but cutesy theatrics lighten the impact.

Arab Nights is best at its simplest. An anonymous Iranian writer contributes The Tale in His Mind, which is plainly told – no props, no demonstration – by Lahcen Razzougui. He recounts the rubber bullets and baton charges of Tahrir Square that left him a corpse clutching a book. He hands a battered copy of A Thousand and One Nights to an audience member and asks for a paragraph, any paragraph. Each matters equally. Just like protestors. Just like people. Suddenly something real happens in the theatre and it’s more powerful than all the clever props combined.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril