It's not just because Stephen Kennedy's Menelaus makes reference midway through to a smokescreen of pretentious self-importance that the National Theatre's new Women of Troy is likely to divide spectators even more than is the norm when it comes to director Katie Mitchell. A maverick who more than any other British director marches to her own auteurist drum in a style generally preferred on the Continent (or among the American avant-garde), Mitchell enflames opinion with much the same regularity with which she tends to cast from a select coterie of players. A substantial number of those performers (Kate Duchene, Anastasia Hille, and Helena Lymbery among them) are on view once again here. So I'm not merely being equivocal when I point out that it's possible to regard this production of Euripides' ferocious play either as one of the more extreme examples of Mitchell's directorial ego run rampant or, more sanely, as a response to - and an expansion upon - her dazzling NT revival of another Euripides play, Iphigenia At Aulis, three years ago. For my part, I value Mitchell hugely and tend to submit just as readily to her stagecraft. But the fact is, I was left cold this time around, notwithstanding an ongoing awareness of the effort expended to achieve the total theater of which she has become the UK's leading practitioner.
That means, among other things, a reduction of emphasis on text: those wanting the spoken feast of which Don Taylor's version of this play is certainly capable may be especially dismayed. Far more crucial to Mitchell is the abiding affect of a play about not much less than the end of the world - or at least, of this world, which finds the women of the title caught in a downward spiral possessed of almost unimaginable pain and fury. The spoken mantra of Duchene's elegantly attired, poshly spoken Hecuba may be, Oh, you Greeks, but behind so apparently insouciant a phrase lies the same queen's full awareness that there is no agony we don't already feel.These women have been through it all, however much their constant application and re-application of lipstick may resemble a cosmetic attempt to hide life's cruelties.
How, then, do you survive in such circumstances? By drifting in and out of reverie and consciousness, which itself explains the various routines, choreographed by Struan Leslie, that take the women to some other psychic realm presumably well removed from surpassingly grim environs that in turn find Hille's Andromache having to attend to the corpse of her own son. Amid such a world, is it better to be dead, as Andromache argues, or alive, which is Hecuba's point of view? Euripides' plot renders the answer a moot point in a literally explosive ending that, on press night anyway, found the audience applauding over the final coup of Gareth Fry's characteristically audacious soundscape.
And it's no surprise, coming from a director who made of Strindberg's Dreamplay something close to a textual ballet, to encounter these characters moving toward and away from consciousness, most memorably so in an extraordinary sequence in which a pregnant, ghostly Andromache is seen retreating from the rest of the women, as if everyone involved could rewind the tape on their hapless lives. The modern setting - a kind of grim, concrete way station located by the same harbour that has delivered the women and will go on to whisk them away - chimes all sorts of contemporary parallels without overinsisting on any one locale or resonance at the expense of any ot