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Ramin Gray, David Greig, Rosie Al-Malla and Tricia Brown - Reimagining The Suppliant Women

In the Royal Lyceum Theatre's Edinburgh rehearsal room, twelve women are gathered around the piano, singing the praises of the goddess Aphrodite. Vocal Leader Stephen Deazley is putting the women, who will be playing the wise women of Argos in the Lyceum's forthcoming production of The Suppliant Women, through their paces. It's only their second rehearsal, but already they sound in fine voice for playwright and new Lyceum artistic director David Greig's new version of Aeschylus' rarely performed Greek tragedy.

Half an hour later, another twenty-odd women troop into the room, and gather on chairs beside the wise women. These are a younger generation, who have been rehearsing every Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon for a month now, and whose collective voice as brought to life by Deazley is steelier and more defiant in tone as they spar with their elders. As the young women shriek in rhythmic unison, one of them punches the air like a warrior princess in waiting.

As the conflicting chorales go back and forth, director Ramin Gray, who heads up the show's co-producers Actors Touring Company (ATC), and who has been pacing the room behind the singing, clicks his fingers in time with the beat, then shakes a bag of peanuts on the table in front of him. Distracted, he goes to the next table, and picks up a pile of scholarly looking books. These are just a handful of academic studies on The Suppliant Women he's been wading through.

In one, critic Gilbert Murray writes in 1930 of the play that 'It is certainly the most primitive, and perhaps, in the common opinion of scholars, the most stiff, helpless and unintelligible.'

“No-one really likes this play,” Gray deadpans, “but we're going to make it really entertaining.”

The Suppliant Women charts the travails of fifty women after they flee Egypt and seek sanctuary in Greece. It is, as one of Gray's books notes, a tale of immigration, and sounds as current as it could possibly be. It was written two and a half thousand years ago.

While Greig could have easily played safe with the first show of his opening season at the Lyceum, the choice to do something so big was deliberate.

“For me,” says Greig, “an opening statement has to be a statement of intent. As a play and a production, The Suppliant Women contains everything I'd like the Lyceum to be about. There's philosophy, poetry, music, participation, democracy, and, in a play that's about immigration and female empowerment, talking about the issues of the day.

“If I look at what the play resembles most, it's Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012. In terms of spectacle, participation and enjoyment. Greek plays were part of civic life, and that's what I want this play and the Lyceum to be about.”

Gray and Greig first applied a similarly inclusive approach to drama on The Events, Greig's 2013 play for ATC that looked at the aftermath of a mass shooting by a teenage boy. While the two main characters were played by professional actors, the action was framed by the onstage presence of a choir, sourced locally from the geographical locale surrounding each venue of the tour. In this way, the choir brought home both the possibility of what might happen on the audience's doorstep, as well as representing the need for a community to come together as one.

“We were doing The Events,” says Gray, “and halfway through rehearsals I thought we had discovered a truly innovative way of how you make a play. Then I realised the ancient Greeks had already done it, which I thought was funny, because everyone was saying how radical and new it was to do a play with two actors and a chorus, and then I thought about doing an actual ancient Greek play with a chorus.”

The Suppliant Women takes the concept further, with the choir no longer standing on the periphery of the action, but, as its central characters, becoming its driving force.

“The chorus are seventy-five per cent of the play,” says Gray, who enlisted composer John Brown, who also worked on The Events, to create the music for The Suppliant Women.

Aside from the show's pertinence in terms of the current immigration crisis, The Suppliant Women is notable for being the first recorded use of the word 'democracy', and for it originally being performed by men, both as a civic duty and as part of an ancient Greek rites of passage.

In keeping with the play's spirit of community and democracy, rather than use already existing choirs as they did with The Events, Gray, Greig, Browne and choreographer Sasha Milavic Davies opted to take on all-comers in auditions, regardless of experience and ability as singers. Two of these are Tricia Brown and Rosie Al-Mulla, who have come at it from non-performative backgrounds, but whose interest in the play stems from their own very different experiences.

“It looked like a fantastic opportunity,” says Brown, who has just started working at the Edinburgh College of Art-based Scottish Documentary Film Institute, “just to work on the Lyceum stage as part of David Greig's first production there, but I never expected anything like this. They're working us really hard, and it's a really fascinating process, because the show is being created as we go along, and we've been learning things by rote.”

Al-Mulla too is relishing the experience, particularly as she has just graduated from the University of Glasgow as an archivist after studying Latin and Ancient Greek in Edinburgh.

“I used to do a lot of student theatre in Edinburgh at the Bedlam,” she says, “and now I'm working on the archive of the Traverse Theatre, so after studying Latin and Greek, doing The Suppliant Women was a perfect amalgamation of all the things I've wanted to do for a long time. It's so exciting, because, although I didn't know the play, I already knew about ancient Greek society, so it''s probably a bit like knowing a lot about regency England and then reading Jane Austen.”

Working so intensely on the project has seen the group bond inn the rehearsal room in a way that has clearly affected both women.

“All of the girls are different ages,” says Al-Mulla, “but we've all become friends. I'm twenty-five, so I'm probably one of the oldest in the group, but even though the youngest in it are sixteen and fully formed, I still feel really protective towards them. There's one girl who I worry about getting a taxi on her own, even though of course she's old enough to be getting a taxi on her own, but it feel like we're all really close, like a little family, and we're all looking at the play in different ways.

“One of the girls in the choir wants to be a doctor, but she also thinks that theatre can be a really good health benefit. I'm coming at it from an arts education side of things, and everyone's looking at it from a different angle.”

For all the personal bonding between the performers, the themes of the play aren't lost on them.

“What's really key about it is how history has continued to repeat itself,” says Brown. “The play is two and a half thousand years old, but the things happening in it are happening now more than ever before. The way the women in the play respond to that is by acting together. Rather than playing separate characters, we're a chorus. We're all one character, I suppose.”

The Suppliant Women, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 1-15.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, September 30th 2016

ends

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