Bristol Old Vic recently saw the powerfully resonate adaptation of original play The Trojan Women. Written by Greek playwright Euripides, it is brought into a contemporary light, by Irish novelist and poet, Brendan Kennelly. Tonight sees a fervent cast of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students bring the play into the modern day.
We spoke with Director Sally Cookson (Sleeping Beauty, Jane Eyre, Peter Pan) who has been working with a cast of final year Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students for the past five weeks. Sally felt compelled to work on this production, having admired Brendan Kennelly’s adaptation of Euripides’ original play, for quite some time.
“Bristol Old Vic Theatre School has a very strong group of women in the final year and I thought I would like to do something that really serves the actors well. This is a piece of writing that I have loved for a long time and I was very keen to find the right opportunity to do it. This felt like the right one.” Sally explains.
The original play was debuted in 415BC at a theatre in the south side of Acropolis during the Great Dionysus festival. Written by Athenian poet and playwright Euripides, it is one of just 19 of his 90 plays that survived. One of which was The Trojan Women – part of a trilogy which also included Alexandros and Palamedes. The play tells the story of the ancient war that descended upon the Greek city of Troy, the aftermath this created and the lives to have endured great suffering.
In choosing to adapt a play with tragedy at its core, Sally Cookson felt that this would be as relevant to audiences today as it was during the period in which it is set, in the Trojan War.
“What’s wonderful about the piece is that the themes are universal. Unfortunately wars are happening all over the place, and the idea of war is a very familiar one. Sadly nothing has changed. It feels like a very relevant play to be putting on.” Sally says.
Brought up to date, drawing upon Brendan Kennelly’s adaptation, the point at which the play begins, is the point immediately after the ransacking of the city of Troy. Through the lens of the women who were both violated and cast aside as slaves, we are invited into a reality very much born out of great suffering, tragedy and ultimately, survival.
At the time of writing The Trojan Women, Euripides was surely ahead of his time, in his words which threatened to challenge the status quo – not least, in the structure of patriarchy and the roles assigned to men and women.
“All the men have been slaughtered, and the women are rounded up and taken off as prizes for the victorious Greeks. It’s the moment before the women are taken off by the Greeks that Euripides focuses on. It’s the plight of the women and how they might cope in that situation.” Sally explains.
Euripides wrote the play during the Pelopennesian War, shortly after an Athenian army attacked Melos, an island in the Aegean Sea, and attempted to force the island’s inhabitants to become members of an alliance against the Greek city of Sparta. In refusing to do so, the men and women were subjected to great suffering with huge loss of life and women who were treated as slaves.
“I like to find what makes a story relevant to today. I’m always striving to make something theatrical.”
“Euripides was a radical playwright. In his time, women were very low status, and had no rights or any kind of power. Plays were performed by men and for men. To show something from a female perspective was hugely feminist and very radical. Euripides was criticised for doing it and was outcast as an exile. I imagine if he was alive today he would be creating work, unafraid of challenging what was going on.” Sally says.
The play features mythical figures including Hecuba (Queen of Troy), Poseidon (King of Sea), and Athena (Goddess of Wisdom and War) – all with their own unique take on the original play, as enacted by a 9-strong cast from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School:
“I’m drawn to actors who are very good at bringing themselves to a role, I like to see the personality of the actor on stage. I don’t like not being able to recognise the actor’s own essence. I’m always delighted at what an actor will bring to a production.” Says Sally.
The performance of The Trojan Women gives audiences today the opportunity to experience a piece of theatre with a deeply heightened style of chorus work, not always present in theatre of the modern age, as Sally explains:
“The Trojan Women is an indictment against war, first and foremost. It’s also a beautiful piece of writing. It’s terribly theatrical. It celebrates theatre, it’s not at all naturalistic. We don’t usually get the opportunity to perform these epic tragedies, with chorus work and I really wanted to honour that idea. We use various ways of getting what the chorus have got to say across to the audience.”
Sally’s previous experience working as an actor herself, has given her an added dimension to her role as Director at Bristol Old Vic, as well as her numerous other productions in conjunction with the Tobacco Factory Theatre, Travelling Light Theatre and many more. In working alongside a cast of passionate and dedicated actors, musicians and Movement Directors, Sally has been able to create a piece of performance that is both authentically true to life and inherently original in its portrayal of Euripides’ original intentions and play:
“I do understand what an actor has to go through in order to find their character, it takes a lot of courage and I think my experience in acting, has helped me. I work very collaboratively, encouraging actors to open themselves up – so they take on ownership of the piece. It’s not just how are we going to recreate this character, it is what is the best way of telling the story.” Sally explains.
The production will feature music written by composer John O’Hara who is Musical Director for Bristol Old Vic. Between Sally, John and the actors, they have created what will be a dynamic and vibrant depiction of an ancient Greek tragedy, revered for its controversial and important message.
Director Sally Cookson never finds the first night of a performance a relaxing experience. A time of both unease and great euphoria, when you can hand something over, not only to the cast who have helped you to create a masterpiece, but to the audience themselves – when it no longer belongs to you, it belongs to us all.
“I find first nights excruciatingly difficult because there’s nothing I can do. I have no control over it. There’s always more you can do. I think that’s my job to look at the things that aren’t working, to try to solve the problems.” Sally says.
The Trojan Women showed at Bristol Old Vic from 4 – 12 March. For more information: http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk