The Trojan Women, Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at Bristol Old Vic

revstrojan2THE Trojan wars have provided material for countless dramas, epic poems and books. The characters are larger than life, heroic, mythical and unknowable.

It is the task of the interpreter – author, playwright, director, actor and artist – to help us to understand them. In the performances of four young Bristol Old Vic Theatre School actresses the wives, daughters and lovers of these heroes are brought to shocking life.

War is eternal – and its truths, lies, betrayals, heroism, deaths and passions are the stuff of humanity and of great art. Nobody does war better than Euripides. The great Greek tragedian was writing at a time when his homeland of Athens was in a state of constant war with Sparta, but still found time to unleash the dogs of war on the peaceful island of Melos. The subsequent massacre of the island’s men and enslavement of the women and children are believed to have influenced the powerfully anti-war sentiments of The Trojan Women, regarded by many as Euripides’ finest play.

It is set immediately after the end of the Trojan war. Hector is dead, Priam is dead. Thanks to the trickery (or strategy – it depends which side you were on) of Odysseus, Troy has been destroyed, its women await their fate. Hecuba, the widow of Priam, mother of Hector and Paris – whose abduction of Helen triggered the Greek invasion – is a prisoner, with her daughter Cassandra, the prophetess doomed never to be believed, her daughter-in-law Andromache, the women of the court, and Helen, the cause of ten years of siege and battle.

The Greek leaders send the herald Talthybius to tell the women what is to happen. Cassandra will be given as concubine to the king Agamemnon – she foresees her death and his, when they return to Mycenae and his vengeful queen Clytemnestra. Hecuba will be Odysseus’s slave. Andromache’s baby son must be killed so that he does not grow up to avenge his father and his people.

The timelessness of the story is brought into vivid relief in Brendan Kennelly’s poetic new translation, and Sally Cookson’s production for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

With choral chants, rhythmic choreographed movement, and performances that are wrenched from deep within these young actors, the drama piles on the horror to a crescendo of anger and agony.

revstrojan1Andromache, (Whitney Kehinde),  Cassandra (Eleanor Jackson), and Helen (Michelle Fox), pour out their souls in epic speeches – the archetypes of the tragic mother whose courage surpasses the brutality of her abusers, the seer whose words fall on deaf ears, and the eternal whore, whose siren words will seduce any man.

Hecuba (Hannah Bristow) carries the weight of Troy in her broken heart and shattered body – her sons dead, her daughters dead or enslaved, her city burned, her land desecrated. She is both queen and Everywoman.

Sally Cookson – whose work at Bristol has included inventive productions of Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Jane Eyre – chose the Kennelly version of The Trojan Women “because of its contemporary edge which ensures the women become resolutely active in their plight rather than remaining passive victims … and highlighting the idea that war brings as much wretchedness to the victors as it does to the vanquished.”

The themes are universal – the reality of war is on our television screens every day. On the morning of the day we saw this production, there was a first-hand account from Rakka, where ordinary Syrians exist under the jackboot fanaticism of Isis, of a young man, beheaded and crucified, displayed in front of his mother’s house. Hecuba lives on.

The Trojan Women continues at Bristol Old Vic studio until 12th March – it is two hours of excoriating drama, and every minute is memorable.


Photographs by Toby Farrow

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