A high-school boy, at the end of The Women of Troy, tells me uncertainly: I'm not sure if it's not making me feel anything because I've been desensitized by television… Despite the necessary reservation we should have for this self-analysis, as children today have been so overanalysed in their exposure to televised and game violence that they are conscious of the expectations placed on them to be heartless before their time, the boy is correct.
I am reading, over and over, The Women of Troy described as powerful, shattering, poignant, and these are such disingenuous words. It is, quite the contrary, deliberately distancing, alienating, from beginning to end. If anything, we may guiltily leave the Malthouse Theatre feeling like we should feel shattered, unsure whether it's not touching us because we're philistines, or because we've become desensitized to Abu Ghraib as idea and image, but that is the extent of the emotional reaction. And that is, ultimately, the problem with The Women of Troy: it doesn’t seem to exist for an audience. It doesn’t want to make us feel, it doesn’t appear to want to make us think. If anything at all, it wants to disgust.
Staging a clef is a very common way of modernising a theatre classic: dressing it up with imagery or situations from another time, usually contemporary, in order to bestow some relevance onto the text, some universal resonance onto our time. However, semiotically and dramaturgically, it makes a mess more often than not: all those colliding, flapping bits, all those elements contradicting one another. A classic, according to Calvino, is a work that has never finished saying what it has to say. To that purpose, I believe the theatre maker(s) has every right to dismantle it completely, build onto whichever thread of relevance she wants to follow. Or, having no emotional connection, she can stage it as a piece of historical formalism, in the key of an era, even if this means to succumb, like MTC, to neotraditional nothingness. Present an ancient Greek tragedy as a detention camp dress-up, however, and it opens up more problems than it solves.
The Women of Troy is a very clear manifesto on the banality of evil, from the blood-stained blue carpets to the torturers in mismatched tracksuits, helped by the chorus which, whenever there's blood, launches into classical muzak in direct defiance of Adorno. The plight of Trojan women after the fall of Troy is shown in bright light, completely de-romanticized. However, that seems to be the extent of the production's conscious intent at saying something.
It is not quite clean if either of the two conflicting elements is meant to be alienating, and if either should provide emotional content. Perhaps we should recognise our shock and horror as we recognise the motifs of Abu Ghraib, and the lines of Euripides would then make this violence strange. If correct, this is simplistic logic: no emotional content travels with these visual quotations, because they are just that. Clean, empty quotations.
Susan Sontag was deeply concerned about the effect that existence in a culture shaped by a sustained reproduction, recycling, of imagery, had on morality. In Regarding the Pain of Others she considers the ecology of images created by the way photography tears fragments of reality out of their historical and geographical contexts, mixing them freely into a visual soup of pop, iconic, ready-to-use images, and compares it to the surrealist collage. This promiscuous aestheticisation of experience, in her words, “makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” It is not merely, thus, that being exposed to a pastiche of shocking images does not provide one with understanding of the complex ways in which suffering somewhere else exists in the same reality with our comfortable experience of regarding suffering on stage. More insidiously, being repeatedly exposed to shocking, brutal images hardens us against feeling shocked, feeling brutalized, by them. The repetition and the distance makes them feel less real, banalises.
Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, recently shown at MIAF, is a crystal-clear counterbalance to this approach. In an interview, Sussman said she merely tries to give an experience that’s meaningful to the audience, and this, I think, is the point of difference. Otherwise, the two works are incredibly similar: both visually modernize an ancient story depicting mass violence on women, barely if at all condemned, (certainly presented as inevitable), and both plunge deep into visual quotations, building their work as a collage. But, while Kosky condemns us to tourism in other people’s pain, Sussman stacks a precariously balanced tower of references to ideas, ideals, aspirations, desires, fears. There may be not a word in Sabine Women, it is nonetheless as intelligent as an essay. Wall Street masculinity, desire for the orientalised feminine, the classicist, fascist and modernist right-angle order, the polished muteness of women’s magazines, echo throughout this work that’s never safe, never polite, but always, always meaningful. Sussman does not quote ready-made images to tickle ready-made emotional responses: she is opening these images to scrutiny through displacement, and tracing our attachment to the dreams they cloak through historical alignment, finding lines of connection between seemingly disparate images. The effect is as riveting as The Women of Troy numbs.
As an antidote to superficial, iconic, recycled image of pain, Sontag demanded the explanatory, intellectual potential of words, arguing that war photography belongs to the newspapers, surrounded with words. I am willing to agree, if only because the banal numbed shock of a recycled image has no meaning except as an artefact of our culture, important only in context. Morally, the image of a prison guard photographing a hooded prisoner has as much weight as a discarded candy wrapper.
So, it could be that we should emotionally connect to the brilliance of Euripides's play, in a crisp new 'translation', and the brutal, industrial ugliness of the prison camp setting, of the violence and the muzak, should distance the human drama. In fact, Alison praises its effectiveness as modernised tragedy.
But is it?
In On Christian Theology, Rowan Williams writes: One point that needs making at once is that the tragic by definition deals with human limit; that is, with what is not to be changed. There is pain in the world that is, so to speak, non-negotiable. The suffering that has happened and cannot be made not to have happened (the irreversibility of time) is, in spite of various kinds of vacuous, insulting and brutal rhetoric, religious and political, unchangeably there for us. (…)
And then quotes Howard Barker’s 49 Asides for a Tragic Theatre, among which:
Tragedy resists the trivialization of experience, which is the project of the authoritarian regime…
In the endless drizzle of false collectivity, tragedy restores pain to the individual.
But is that what The Women of Troy does?
I wish I could agree. I wish I felt that human suffering, the suffering of women through wars, was dignified in this production. If it happens at all, it happens through Robyn Nevin’s masterful realisation of Hecuba, because she is able to both rage Greek, and be the broken prison-camp shell of a human being, and not appear a puppet. The two halves, the decorous Greek and the cheap documentary Abu Ghraib, are so incoherently plastered one onto another, the production asks us to make such leaps of imagination, aesthetic adjustments, from flicking phone cameras to polytheism, that one would need to be a tightly programmed robot to do it successfully. If Hecuba, switching from gorgeous, profound defeat, numb humiliation that has already become shame, as Primo Levi poignantly concluded, to making fierce Greek statements about honour and state, still stands as the emotional centre of the production, it is due to Nevin’s fantastic performance, not the internal logic of the piece. The three-headed chorus alternates between apathy, scrambling for food, and obtuse singing, functioning as a do-all backdrop, perhaps, but never as three human beings. And the representation of Helen as a sort of mafia wife is either outrageously inappropriate, or confirms my doubt that there is little empathy for the women of Troy in this production. Nothing can validate the black coat, the sunglasses, the hubris. A person condemned to death clings onto dear life. You need to not understand bare desire to survive to smother survival into grotesque.
This is, ultimately, what The Women of Troy does – it tries to not so much shock, as to nauseate. Repulse. It makes things grotesque, and that seems to be its ultimate goal. The grotesque of Cassandra’s rape, for example, is in the way it happens in a closed cupboard, and not in plain view. The image of Cassandra crawling out, underpants drenches in blood (certainly an excessive amount) around her ankles, is an image meant to disgust, not to make think, and certainly not to provoke compassion. It is not the shocking graphic revelation, but the choice of what’s shown, and what’s hidden, that makes it something other than a simple, bare witnessing of violence.
There are, as usual, elements that work, perhaps surprisingly. The planarity of body direction, used greatly in Navigator too, results in visual banality that’s quite intriguing, and is mirrored in effect by the back wall, a flat surface of filing cabinets and school lockers. The most effective device employed to physically show the precarious, exposed vulnerability of these women is to constantly make them balance on small cardboard boxes. There are at least two moments in which, perhaps unintentionally, a palpable emotional connection was established between the play and the audience. The entrance of Andromache, perhaps a side-effect of pregnancy and fine costume. The other was a song, the Balkans mourning song, perhaps because it finally dispensed with the sugary muzak to offer something more felt, something relating to the narrative. For the rest of the time, and this needs to be said, the audience tries hard, very hard, to empathise. If Hell is the absence of compassion, we spend the entire show trying to save ourselves.
There were two intellectually interesting features. The choice of muzak, first, a random selection of madrigals, Bizet, Mozart, When you're smiling, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. And second, the BBC Radio voice on the speaker, announcing the tortures to be bestowed upon each one of the royal daughters. This was not your normal psychotic German bureaucrat, administering genocide as a job description. This was the polished enunciation of an educated gentleman, explaining the options to Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and advising them not to try to find their own alternatives, because everything had been predicted and provided for already. This was one genuinely subversive element in the play: in my mind, it acknowledged that the concentration camps were invented in South Africa, that the holocaust was the product of the cultured, urbane mind, exterminating the world because it didn't fit in their little definition of civilization. It also, somewhat funnily, related to that strange way in which, I believe, Anglophones identify with the ancient Greeks and Romans. Both because they seem to see their drama as the basement to Shakespeare, and because they identify with the search for first principles, analytical approach to life, basic questions of cause and purpose. It was a moment of Sussman-level intelligence in an otherwise banal pastiche of borrowed imagery. And yet, I don't think it was intentional. The first thing the gentleman sitting next to me did, when the lights came up, was to mention the incomprehensible question of Germans and the concentration camps.
We came wanting to feel, and we were not allowed to. Alright. Had there been intellectual content instead, had we been accused of something other than insensitivity, perhaps the experience wouldn't have felt so empty. I went away from The Women of Troy initially only underwhelmed. But, the more I thought about it, the more this feeling turned to fury. The chorus of three women, dressed in white tights and singlets, their womanly silhouettes so crushingly humane, remind one of the most ordinary of women, who spend their time at home wearing quite the same clothes. Smeared with blood, bruised, electrocuted, this is the most potent image in the entire production. And Robyn Nevin's Hecuba, right in the middle of the play, reminded me very strongly of my grandmother, who survived her own war by collaborating with whoever marched through, and cleaned up behind the partisan army in the end, burying some German soldiers behind the house with the rest of her family. There is a real and deep history of women in war. Women suffer in wars, and suffer greatly: this is not an abstract subject. And yet, Kosky’s production seems to treat the suffering of women in war as simply yet another image to be subverted, a theme to refract through a visual prism, and confuse. It is deeply unfelt.
Why make these intimate revelations about women, make them wear home clothes and resemble living grandmothers? Why humiliate them if it isn't even in order to bring their tragedy closer? Undress them on stage in order to distance them from us, to prove a point about the banality of mass media? How demeaning, disrespectful and offensive to present them like this: dirty, violated, deconstructed and disjointed, forced to now sing, now shiver numbly, passively, now invoke gods. Interrupt their pain with changes of register, scale it up and down with grotesque. The worst plight of the women of Troy, in this production, is in the way they are not allowed their suffering.
Ian Kershaw, in Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, wrote that calmly observing the suffering inflicted on others would not be possible without apathy, yet apathy was the most common reaction to the proliferation of hate propaganda. If there is a way to avoid apathy, it is not through complicity with the promiscuous aesthetisation of experience. Not even in the theatre.
The Women of Troy, by Euripides, adapted by Tom Wright and Barrie Kosky, directed by Barrie Kosky. Designed by Alice Babidge, lighting by Damien Cooper, musician Daryl Willis, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic, Arthur Dignam, Natalie Gamsu, Queenie van de Zandt, Jennifer Vuletic, Patricia Cotter and Kyle Rowling, Giorgios Tsamoudakis and William Larkin. Sydney Theatre Company, presented by Malthouse Theatre, until November 22.