In this version of Euripides’ classic, relentless tragedy about the aftermath of the fall of Troy, the gods are indifferent bureaucrats playing with human fates over a phone call, the ‘Trojan’ women wear embroidered vyshyvanka and bury their dead wrapped in rushnyks, and Cassandra speaks truth to power in more ways than one. Produced in collaboration with the St Andrews Ukrainian Society, the Freshers’ Drama Festival production of Trojan Women – directed by Orsi Haynes and produced by Aradhana Kiran – finds strong contemporary resonances in its timeless plot. The play begins with a montage of images of devastated cities and displaced people across Ukraine – approaching its second year of being consistently under siege by Russian military forces – accompanied by a monologue delivered by Felix Da Silva Clamp as Poseidon, one of the Olympian gods on the side of Greece in the Trojan War. Amidst the horrifying scenes of devastation, the images that focused on the small-scale were the most poignant and heartbreaking, such as an aged hand holding three bullet casings, and a once brightly coloured stuffed unicorn toy half-buried in rubble.
This idea of small details as emotionally effective focal points was key to the success of the production, pushing against the impersonal narratives that often alienate people who only read of wars and conflict in the news rather than live through it. Staged in the round, the claustrophobic proximity of the audience to the action lent strength to tiny aspects of the actors’ performances. Veteran St Andrews actor Emily Speed gave a particularly nuanced and compelling performance as Hecabe, acting as the grief-stricken matriarch and emotional core that held the play together. Speed’s hands clawing into the ground upon hearing of the killing of her daughter Polyxena as a human sacrifice was just one of the many details that made her performance truly effective. Other standout performers included Heather Tiernan as a quietly vengeful Athena and Mary Kalinski as Cassandra – who attacked her frenzied and chaotic monologues in a sunflower-yellow skirt, portending the fall of the house of Atreus as she would destroy it from the inside.
Some actors reached their most compelling performances when playing off of each other, such as Anna-Marie Regner as Andromache bravely facing Da Silva Clamp’s soldier as she attempts to protect her infant son Astyanax. Da Silva Clamp gave a far more intriguing performance as the soldier in this scene, the sense of a man attempting to suppress his own humanity palpable in his physicality. In a later scene, Rupert Carter as Menelaus delivers a truly phenomenal piece of silent acting as he hesitates to condemn the traitorous Helen (Iha Jha) to death upon their return to Greece. The complex blocking of the show was notably successful, particularly in the scenes of the chorus which present visually striking groupings of women physically holding each other up in times of catastrophe.
The tension between silence and sound is prevalent in this play, in which the screams, cries, and wails of women make it all but impossible to ignore their suffering. In a world where the torment of innocent people falls upon the deaf ears of the global West, it is all too heart-rending. The decision to set this play in modern-day Ukraine was an inspired choice by the production team, but one that could have gone so much further. Using Ukrainian music throughout the show, such as over the opening montage and in the awkward silence of one set transition at the beginning, would have established the scene and the setting far more effectively. Furthermore, the production would have been improved by a greater use of music and sound more generally. The audience jumped collectively when the sound of a bomb felling the Trojan citadel concluded the play – think how much more effective the staging would have been if this wasn’t one of few instances of sound effects! The choice to have Cassandra say ‘Russians’ instead of ‘Greeks’ or ‘Achaeans’ at the conclusion of her monologue was thought-provoking – Cassandra being the ‘mad’ prophetess who speaks truth to power – but sounded jarring as a singular isolated instance.
Nevertheless, the decision to transpose Trojan Women to contemporary Ukraine lended this classic play particular relevance in our present-day era, for instance with the abduction and killing of Trojan children echoing the state-sponsored crimes against humanity committed by Russia in the abduction of potentially hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children in their ongoing campaign of Russification. At the end of the play, after an unceasing hour and a half of suffering, grief, and screaming as the women of Troy watched their city and their lives go up in flames, the audience could barely speak when the house lights went up – the true mark of a moving and successful production.