The frenzied chorus arrives in Greece to seek asylum in Argos. Pictures: Stephen Cummiskey

The Suppliant Women

The Young Vic Theatre


Compared to Euripides, the plays of Aeschylus and indeed Sophocles are woefully underrepresented. For the last two we possess only seven plays each, which include the Young Vic’s current Aeschylus drama, The Suppliant Women.

Fragments abound, but they do not amount to plays, let alone complete trilogies. The situation with Greek Comedy is even more woeful: only Aristophanes and, much later, Menander being seriously represented.

Most plays do not survive at all, unless (aptly, in this case) Egypt’s sands once again yields a wealth of lost literature. The Tragedian Phrynichus (whose tragedy about the fall of the Asiatic Greeks to the Persians caused a scandal and evoked universal opprobrium: his subject was too touchy, too close to home, too painful), have all but disappeared. Likewise the comedians Crates and Cratinus, the latter of whom lived to 90 and wrote plays that, if one can tell from tiny extracts, were very funny and very rude indeed. Ruder than Aristophanes, who did survive (11 plays, at least).

Aeschylus is remembered for several reasons. First, he at least partially survives. Second, we have a complete trilogy, the Oresteia, the only such example we possess (Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays are not a trilogy at all, but quite distinct, although they can work well as such, stitched together, as in Julian Anderson’s recent opera The Thebans). Thirdly, Aeschylus wrote the one overtly ‘political’ tragedy we have, in that it deals not with myth but a recent historical event, the Persian invasion of Greece …and its defeat.

The Suppliant Women, or Suppliants (Hiketides: in Greek hikeuo = I plead or beseech), part of a trilogy (or, with comic play added, a tetralogy) probably known as The Danaids, and centring on the fifty-strong female chorus who are daughters of King Danaos, the play’s protagonist, was formerly believed the earliest Aeschylus drama play we possess more or less in its entirety; but that honour, it is now recognised, belongs to The Persians.

Yet The Suppliant Women is more rough-hewn, its imagery robust and craggy, intense, didactic and wildly expressive. It carves its way through mythical events like a serrated kitchen knife; the characters in the play, which originally culminated in mass murder, are like archetypal stone sphinxes, sprung to life from the desert. Here, they may seek asylum (in Argos, a forerunner of Agamemnon’s Mycenae); but later when fired up, they will show no mercy - bar one.


The fiery Gemma May offers magnificent leadership to the terrified chorus of young women suppliants

In this play, we might almost call it a hefty extract or offcut, we see the girls – that is what they must have been - in desperation, fleeing for safety from a hostile Egypt to southern Greece. Although Aeschylus introduces first one actor (protagonist) then a second (deuteragonist): two rival kings, Danaos and Pelasgos, seeking an accommodation of sorts, the real lead characters in this early form of drama are the chorus, originally played by boys or young men. And led by a choragus (the wonderful Gemma May), who speaks often the most telling or critical lines on their behalf, or leads them in the dance.

And dance is indeed a key ingredient for this staging (first tried out in Bern, Switzerland in a German translation), and of this kind of drama. Whatever the Greek story, be it Euripides’ The Bacchae or indeed Aeschylus’ The Choephoroi, the chorus must dance: its movements are essential; indeed the word ‘choros’ actually means ‘dance’. In large part we owed the quality of this production, pieced together by Actors’ Company and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and seen in several provincial cities before making it to London and the Young Vic, to a gifted choreographer, Sasha Milavic Davies, who with marvellous invention orchestrates the alluring moves and countermoves, the endlessly creative angularities, fluctuations and varied interweavings of their steps and the fluidity of their bodies, so as to captivate the imagination of an audience.

We owed it too to the miraculous playing of two musicians, the endlessly versatile percussionist Ben Burton, and Callum Armstrong, both the player and to all intents the miraculous reinventor of the double aulos, a conjoined two-pipe flute often seen on numerous Greek vase paintings, who contrived to make so many different squawks, shivers, trumpeting squeals and susurrations he engaged for us a wealth of emotions; the two set the standards for the evening, the music actually composed, with no lack of imagination, by John Browne (who shares his name with one of the most creative of all English 15th century composers).


Omar Ebrahim, the most impassioned and articulate of performers, as the protective King Danaos

The play dates from 463 BC, when Athens was completing its domination of the thickly occupied southwestern Turkish seaboard, following the rout of the Persian invasion. There is a certain contemporaneity, for Egypt, long a supplier of corn (along with the Crimea) was beginning to crawl on to the Greeks’ radar.

The maidens are fleeing the advances, or at least feared advances, of their cousins, the 50 sons of their uncle Aegyptus (‘We didn’t flee from famine, feud or flood, but from men: the unholy sons of Aegyptos, to whom we’re force betrothed. Our cousin men fifty of them, who want to marry us; they disgust us…’), whom they will end up gruesomely killing on their wedding night, viewing the experience as little short of rape., but essentially guided by their father. Hence their flight to the Argive temple of their ancestor, Zeus, for they are descended from the progeny of Io, whom Zeus pursued and impregnated.

It was not just the moves of the female chorus, armed with their wool-wrapped suppliant branches, but their enunciation that was so extraordinarily good, and hence gripping; as when they foresee the outcome, in David Greig’s translation : ‘Violence breeds violence, they… will take us at spear-point; but oh – on our wedding night, seeds will be planted,/ hate-seeds of horror will blossom in madness, / and blood will be spilt on our white marriage beds.’.

You can hear, too, the rhythms that Greig so successfully picks up. Another rhythm he uses, apt for a chorus, is the trochaic, which is named after the churning of a wheel, and starts each foot with a strong beat, so not iambic ‘ti-tum’, but the more thrumming ‘tum-ti’.

The chorus is often at its most effective when chanting, if not exactly singing, in two or three parts, often in verbal anon or imitation; their rhythmic sense was acute beyond words. In their flight they are suspicious: ‘Greek people are tricky; they take offence quickly’. They find strength in ’Roost all together like doves on a rock’, their father advises them, the aulos hauntingly holding a semitone.

Danaos, the father, to suggest or betoken their Egyptian origins, speaks with a Yorkshire accent. One feared that, in a way, this might detract. After all, Omar Ebrahim is such a bewitchingly clear speaker, his enunciation so lucid, that there was a danger this device might distract. Yet Greig’s magnificently wrought lines beamed, as when Danaos sees peril approaching: ‘Standing here, upon this cliff, I see a ship, A painted prow, a billowed sail, Dark eyes plunging through the waves… Bodies black against the sky.’

Interestingly, it is when, with a double quick change, Omar Ebrahim reappears as the threatening Egyptian Herald, the accent partially modified, that he reveals his electrifying self (‘There must be a dance before the violation….Won’t there be beheadings? Don’t be disobedient…’. And then the invading men’s chorus: ’Your gods won’t stop our fun. They’re not our gods, they’re Greek.’ The aspiring husbands have come to remove them. And Ebrahim again, no less passionate but fascinatingly cast now and doubly inspired in the very opposite role to the reassuring Danaos: ‘These sailors’ rough hands won’t respect your fine clothing. Don’t leave yourself open to stripping and beating. If you submit to us all will be well.’ With the arrival of what the girls call ‘filthy Maggoty meat-men, Rats in a drain men…’: the rape has begun with the planned abduction. The poetry of Greig’s version/translation can be sensed in every line; some rhymed, some not.


Oscar Batterham as the refined King Pelasgos, leader of the democratic state of Argos which offers the women sanctuary

The other significant figure is Argos’s king, Pelasgos (Oscar Batterham), who ponders their plight and then decides to offer sanctuary. I didn’t like the anomalous modern costume for him (grey suit) or Danaos (dark informal attire): presumably designed to offset the multicolour gear of the girls. The men’s chorus were much the same. A rich coloured sash and a crown for the king wouldn’t harm. But almost like Ebrahim’s, Batterham’s speech was impressive, especially later, when he takes the women’s side: ‘We will give you back these women /When the women want to leave us, If you win them with your words. But until then – we will defend them. That’s the law now passed in Argos’ Music to Athenian ears, Argos is presented as some kind of proto-democracy, facing up to tyranny from the East. The comparison with retreating Persia will not have been missed.

And with a curt dismissal to the Herald, Pelasgos, whose name indicates he represents the pre-Hellenic population of the Greek mainland, confirms the Argives’ noble offer of Sanctuary: ‘You’ll be safe in Argos, we built it well. There are hostels to stay in, or rooms in my palace…And if anyone asks you why you’re in Argos Say ‘By leave of the people, they voted us in.’

The people decide; the King underlines and upholds their decision. Just as in the Oresteia Aeschylus would go on to depict the historic dignity of Athens’ judicial system, so here, an avid Periclean, he allows Argos to provide a model of integrity for the democratic forces poised to triumph in Athens.

This is a serious, involving, forward-looking and indeed entertaining stagework, many of whose underlying values, husband-killing aside, hold good for today. The ever-adventurous Young Vic has taken a welcome and courageous step in staging it. The choreography alone merits the price of a ticket. To 25-11-17.

Roderic Dunnett



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