The plot is simple. (You’ll receive, nearly unnecessary, crib notes when you arrive at the theatre.) The daughters flee Egypt to Greece by boat and claim asylum. The King of the city of Argos feels that it’s a risky decision to make on his own – to bar them would bring terror, to welcome them could bring about war – so he puts it to a vote of the people. While the vote goes the women’s way, ships on the horizon bring the Egyptian threat sailing towards the shore of Argos.
“Who are these strange women? … You don’t look Greek … more Libyan … Egyptian … Cypriot … Indian nomads … Ethiopian … What are you?”
The protagonists are the daughters, played by 15 young women recruited into the community chorus. They chant, sing, dance, sculpt and speak with a confidence that disguises the limited period of rehearsal. It’s only in moments when a Belfast voice can be heard speaking, no longer disguised by the singing, that you realise that nearly everyone on stage is local. (Kudos to the local vocal and movement coaches, Mairéad Duffy and Sarah Johnston.) The local cast playing arriving refugees chimes some bells with the unrecognised Greek roots of the daughters of Danaids when they arrive at Argos. Another sixteen members of the community churos play the wise women of Argos and the King’s soldiers.
The costumes are colourful yet simple. The staging is minimal which redirects focus back onto the cast. You’ll be tapping your foot along with some of the rhythms as the passion and verve carries you along on a wave of emotion when the daughters realise that the people of Argos are behind them and will offer them sanctuary and protection.
The libation given by a civic leader at the beginning, the long choral odes, the rhythmic back and forth, the authentic aulos instrument expertly played by Callum Armstrong along with percussion (Ben Burton) at one side of the stage, the simple set of a bricked courtyard and the musing on a mythological act all connect to the ancient Greek traditions. Essentially, it’s an extended prayer to Zeus. But don’t let that put you off!
The modern resonances with the global refugee crisis are obvious and familiar as the city leader oscillates between the worry that “letting in migrants [might] cause Argos to fall” and the desire to find “some way we can all live safely”. The public understanding that “if we turn our back on women in danger we’ll pollute and sully our city” is less universally expressed in 2016.
Do these war-battered refugees holding up their suppliant branches in their left hands deserve asylum? Do they need to threaten suicide?
The clash of culture between the Egyptian men and the King as well as between the daughters and the women of Argos echo modern concerns. The daughters are given advice on integration and rumours that could be straight out of a resettlement programme manual.
The Suppliant Women is a mesmerising piece of musical theatre, with beautiful imagery and a powerful story. It’s both ancient and contemporary. And the second and last performance tonight in the Grand Opera House as part of Belfast International Arts Festival should not be missed.
Actors Touring Company will be taking The Suppliant Women to Newcastle upon Tyne (3-5 November) where a new community chorus is already in rehearsal and will soon meet the three touring actors Danaus (Omar Ebrahim), lead daughter (Gemma May) and the King (Oscar Batterham).