Greek and global

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Cassandra, a Youthful Havisham, with remnants of an unattended party. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Cassandra, a Youthful Havisham, with remnants of an unattended party. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The play Widows of Troy, while illustrating the democratisation of theatre, tells us that human collateral damage in conflicts is not acceptable.

Cassandra, a Youthful

ABANDONED warehouses and garages scarcely inspire visions of spectacular theatrical landscapes. Yet, as environmental and intimate theatre gains acceptance, it is precisely these unconventional performance spaces that experimental theatre directors are turning to.

In India, site-specific performance was perhaps made famous mainly by Ebrahim Alkazis landmark production of Tughlaq at the Purana Qila in 1974 with the National School of Drama Repertory Company. It is a trend now continued on the one hand with lucrative ventures such as Muzaffar Alis Jahan-e-Khusrau at the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin and on the other with more avant garde solo performances such as those of Maya Raos. In New York, the historical avant garde period of the 1960s left its rash of smaller theatres all along the citys landscape.

Reacting against the ordained hallowed halls of high art such as the Lincoln Centre or the commercial imperatives of Broadway playhouses, these newer sites at least allude to a certain democratisation of the theatre venue through easier accessibility for all.

Combine this with the unrelenting gentrification that New York City has seen since the late 1980s and you now find many more warehouses that can be occupied and turned into theatres. In one such bare and abandoned locale, Kristjan Thorgeirsson directed Widows of Troy, a new play by Hillary Miller, this year.

It was an artistic collaboration that characterises much of the theatre in New York that geographically and aesthetically distances itself from the ramparts of Broadway. By all accounts, the director, playwright, designers and actors worked together to recreate the splendid desolation at the end of the Trojan War in a small Williamsburg warehouse now recast as the performance space the Syrup Room.

On any given evening, with the chill of winter still grasping at the air, a walk through the curiously post-industrial streets of Williamsburg with their tenacious hipster undertones brings to mind simultaneously both the bustle of an era long gone by and the promise of artistic possibilities whose boundaries are as yet uncharted.

What better locale for Queen Hecuba to sit in and wonder with dread what lies ahead for her and the other widows of Troy. Greek tragedy, it is a tad facile to note, has not always been kind to its women. They are often murderers and monsters who only serve to prop up our admiration for their men. In this matter the women of Troy perhaps get the worst treatment. Their men are marauders inviting revenge and they themselves are the spoils of a war they did not want waged over a woman whom they never truly accepted as their own.

Their plight, of course, was taken up most famously by Euripides and then later by Jean-Paul Sartre. But in this retelling of The Trojan Women, Miller does something remarkable she makes it a parable for contemporary times when the notion of collateral damage has grown so accepted as to have become prosaic. Millers script strips away all refuge of divinity while being a somewhat ingenious shadowing of the original Euripidian schema.

Here, Poseidon is a beleaguered patriarch fraught with the weight of his responsibilities rather than a god storming at his subjects. The director, conjuring this fallibility and frailty of the characters, stages his queen in the opening sequence crouching in a skeletal bathroom without the slightest bit of good news to relieve her. The action starts unexpectedly and awkwardly, as the members of the audience stand around, setting the tone for the disease that pervades the plots milieu.

Through thick scarlet somnolent curtains we are then led from this curious foyer of the Syrup Room into its central playing area. Menelaus sits next to the carcasses of cracked walnuts on a long dramatic supper table by which Hecuba kneels to find out the fate of her kinswomen. Helen, with her jaded wiles, tries to ensure a softer consideration for herself. The mise en scene is menacing. The man himself is unyielding.

As the play progresses and the dankness of an old building resonates with the chill of the action on the stage, the audience is pulled into the bleak vortex of an antebellum empire in defeat. The minutiae of death are captured through its many re-enactments by the Trojan widows. Cassandra is dead to her senses, making a youthful Havisham with her remnants of an unattended party. As she piles and dismantles a pyramid of incongruent champagne glasses, she speaks with an eerie frivolity of the visions that speak to her.

Andromache carries her dead infant swaddled in fading cloth, musing on the rituals of heroic burial. A discordant signifier of a nursing mother who nourishes death, she foretells of a Troy where the sap of life will run dry. And Hecuba, above all, forsees the destruction of spirits and souls that their departure from Troy as trophies of war will bring. She knows that they cannot stay but realises that their forced departure will rob the city of its only inhabitants; those who remembered and those who cared.

The PLay Opens

Caroline Tamas, in the role of Hecuba, gives a touching performance as a queen and a mother left with nothing but the bitter certainty of the destruction of all that she holds dear. In an equally striking performance, but in a less cardinal role, is Tracy Hazas, as the duty-bound yet tormented Talthybius.

This Greek herald is a victim as much of his youth as of his sense of duty and simply cannot find a way to alleviate the awful news he carries to the defeated queen.

Hazas, as she slinks in the background lighting the candles of Menelauss officious chamber, projects well the brooding realisation that sometimes it is no solace to be on the victorious side.

Thorgeirsson and costume designer Kylie Ward chose to put their characters in modern garb for this reinvocation of myth. So, while Hecuba is in bedraggled tweed, the distraught Cassandra is in stained silks. This lends a particular poignancy to this saga of a prosperous city gone dreadfully wrong, resonating with the contemporary moment.

With the world as it is today, with its all too explicable weather changes and much too irrational international conflict policies, it is not hard to imagine a post-apocalyptic human history. It is a mirage of disaster that must be kept at bay if only by frequent accounting of its horrors.

Greek plays have retained their currency not so much because of humanitys perpetual fascination with heroism but because of their perennial reminder of the fallacy of human will. The hubris of the leading nation of the world in assuming, nay believing in, its democratising mission in the world can only be ominous.

In electoral politics, hamartia is only metonymically individualistic, for somewhere the culpability is civilisational. If catharsis has been repeatedly read as a societal mechanism for expunging and expiating wrongs, then modern re-enactments of Greek tragedy surely shift the functionality of the form a bit.

Tamas gives a

Since the alleged scapegoating of yore simply cannot be valid or replicated in the current instance, adapting a Euripidian work is rather a more political utterance.

It calls attention not to the fatalistic or oracular fulfilments of mans destiny but rather to the element of decision and choice that underlies human action.

Leaving aside the discussions of civilian carnage, the genders of defeat and the autocracy of all victors, human collateral as Widows of Troy so movingly reminds us, is always unacceptable.

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