Greek theatre isn’t dead! At least, that’s what the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI)’s 2017 graduating cohort wants you to think, with their double bill of two classic Greek pieces: Euripedes’ Women of Troy and Aristophanes’ Women at the Festival of Thesmophoria (Thesmophoriazusae).
As Singapore’s leading multicultural theatre institute, ITI excels at bringing international and intercultural students and practitioners together to learn and create works that may not receive the runs they deserve, and bring different works to the stage. Women At Troy & Thesmophoria brings Ancient Greece to the fore once again, and led by Australian director Aarne Neeme, creates strife and comedy in the Drama Centre Black Box.
Both plays shared a single set, transforming the Drama Centre Black Box into something resembling a traditional Greek amphitheatre, expanding the space and setting it up for a true theatrical spectacle. The plays also firmly kept their setting in ancient Greece, utilising Tolis Papazoglou’s evocative music to set the mood and atmosphere.
The night started off with Euripedes’ tragedy Women of Troy. Often considered one of the very best anti-war plays and Euripedes’ best work, Women of Troy follows the fall of Troy to the invading Greeks, and the tragic fates and consequences of the Trojans still alive. Specifically, we follow the royal family, as the dethroned queen Hecuba (Uma Katju), dressed in a dark coloured robe, appears completely stripped of her dignity and former position, mourning the loss and fearful of her future as a Grecian slave. Uma Katju plays the role of Hecuba well, contorting her face to showcase a wide range of emotions and delivering a very real, pained performance.
Hecuba’s daughter, the cursed clairvoyant Cassandra (Tan Weiying) is a truly pitiful character, as she foresees her fate of being murdered at the hand of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, whose concubine she is to become. Tan Weiying manages to bring out Cassandra’s eccentric qualities, while also drawing out the comical aspects of her character, leading to laughter from the audience at the deposed princess.
The pillage and bloodshed doesn’t stop there of course. Andromache (Regina Foo), Hecuba’s daughter-in-law, confirms that Hecuba’s youngest daughter is slain, and Andromache herself has her son taken from her and thrown to his death so that he may not grow up to avenge his father. As Andromache is dragged away to the Greek ships, a raucous, hysterical Regina Foo curses and screams as she holds on to her son for dear life, her maternal instinct kicking in, but ultimately losing him too. Greek General Menelaus is played by Saranjith N.K., whose deep set eyes added an unsettling intensity and cruelty to him that makes the Greeks seem much more menacing than they should, while Sonia Kwek as Helen of Troy, having been taken as his wife, drew smirks from the audience because of her smart responses and wordplay defending herself from persecution, making for an interesting performance.
There’s something deeply eerie about the blank eyed masks worn by the chorus, never judging, only reporting these events and suggesting the cyclical nature of war and its sufferers. Euripedes’ play’s strength truly comes through near the end, as Hecuba is forced to bury her grandson’s limp body due to Andromarche’s abduction, and as she is prevented from throwing herself into a fiery suicide, it’s suggested that what awaits her in Greece is a fate far worse than death, a somber ending that fully showcases the horrors of war.
As is tradition, a tragedy is often followed up with a comedy, in this case a festival comedy. Yet even as the audience laughs at the giant members and ridiculous antics of the cast, Thesmophoriazuse pairs well with Women of Troy, continuing its anti-war rhetoric, albeit in a much more light-hearted manner.
Interestingly enough, Euripedes himself appears in this play, played by Saranjith N.K., as he is put on trial by the Athenian women for warping their image in his plays, and fears they will kill him. Confiding in the literally more ‘ballsy’ Mnesilochus (Desmond Soh), Themosphoriazusae kicked off with a hilarious, high energy start as the sexual innuendo began in earnest.
Interestingly enough, Thesmophoriazusae’s plot resembles many modern day comedies, with a plot to infiltrate the women-only fertility festival to figure out just what it is these devious females are plotting. Euripedes enlists the help of fellow tragic, effeminate poet Agathon (Teo Dawn), who exeggerated her role well, and ends up passing the mantle to Mnesilochus, who cross dresses and is completely shaven to daringly go where no man has gone before. It was easy to tell that Desmond Soh was having a lot of fun with this role, even changing his voice to a much higher pitch to pass as a woman and completely chewing the scenery.
What results, of course, is utter chaos in this battle of the sexes and what happens when a man literally walks in a woman’s shoes for a day, and is inevitably found out. Priestess Critylla (Vanessa Wu) leads the charge and heads the festival, bringing with her a priestly aura when she addresses the audience, while the hilarious Namaha Mazoomdar played Mica, a society lady fond of getting drunk, and whose ‘baby’ forms a key part of the men’s plot to unravel later on. Thesmophoriazusae is a play that withstands the test of time, with the farce coming hard and fast, the jokes and mistakes rapidly introduced so quickly it becomes a storm of laughter, evidenced by the audience’s reaction, and even manages to make a strong case for women’s rights.
Aaarne Neeme’s direction manages to also update the play slightly, with a sequence where the cast begins to chant ‘Rumour Has It’, to a tune that resembles the Adele song of the same name, while also utilising the immersive quality of the set to draw the audience in even closer. At one point, the cast asks the audience for their opinion on a certain matter during the traditional Greek organized democratic assembly, making us feel like we were a part of the festivities as well and giving us a voice and say in matters.
Above all, it was evident the cast was having a lot of fun with the script and completely becoming one with their roles, their energy transmitting to the audience and making the play an absolute laugh a minute affair. With realistic looking props and over the top costumes and actions, it truly was a no holds barred performance and an excellent introduction to anyone who might be interested in Greek comedic traditions done well in a modern way.
All in all, ITI has succeeded once again in using this performance as a means to cross boundaries and share various cultures via theatre. There’s both a strong educational and entertainment component in this piece, and here’s to more interesting, cultural pieces on our local stage in future as well.
Photo Credit: Bernie Ng