A throng of women land upon the shore. Like the body of water they arrived on, their bodies ferociously ebb and flow with intention. They are here to seek asylum. Backed by beating drums and, the aulous, an ancient Greek instrument, the choir sing their story. On a make shift boat they have travelled to escape forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins. Song turns into chant, and they hurl exasperated words at us. Mellifluous and piercing, Gemma May Rees leads the chorus of refugees who are all young female volunteers recruited from Manchester, remarkably singing, moving and acting like true professionals. They are the pillars, the caryatids of this play, an adaption of Aeschylus by David Greig.
The ferocity of the women is soon quelled by their father Danaos, played with subtlety by Omar Ebrahim. It isn’t enough that they have safely made it to the Grecian shore. Now they must appeal to the people of Argos for acceptance and protection. “You must be humble and meek”, Danaos tells his daughters. They take his advice on board and bow down to King Pelasgus ruler of Argos, whom Oscar Batterham brings to life. These women put their case forward to a man with absolute power. However, they don’t just have appeal to Pelasgus’ sense of humanity, they have an additional weight to their case, to make heavy their listeners heart. It is ancestry that if Pelasgus ignores, potentially puts himself and his country in danger of the Gods retributive action. The wrath of Zeus.
The play progresses through Aeschylus’ story, with creative use of a minimalist set. The women, still in chorus, tell the story of how Io, from whom they descend, was lusted after by Zeus and consequently turned into a cow by his jealous wife Hera. Throughout, the women artfully, almost ceremoniously, arrange their black scarves to create the cow’s likeness on the stage floor. Then two buckets of milk thrust from either side of the stage, collide in the middle, creating rich visual imagery accompanying the spoken. Now the women have laid their history bare. Pelasgus is on side and it is over to the people of Argos to decide their future.
Faultless actors and the chorus continue to create a stirring atmosphere, and it feels impossible not to be rooting for the women, to gain asylum, to escape the tyranny. This is the plays real achievement, portraying the power of the collective, especially during times of adversity. David Greig has managed to take theatre to its most elemental. Indeed this is the power of theatre, being able to reach toward a collective consciousness. Rapturous applause evidenced its contagion.