Another thirty minutes with Barrie Kosky

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Barrie Kosky is a big hit with people who are vastly more knowledgeable about theatre than me.  He’s very big in Europe.  So maybe he’s just the ticket.  My two exposures to his theatre have been strikingly similar.  At the end of something I went to at the Sydney Opera House I snuck into the second half of his King Lear at the Opera House.

I love the play but didn’t stay long.  From memory, it consisted of people wandering about in a space made as unpleasant as possible.  A bit of a metaphor for how bad things were going for His Majesty Mr Lear no doubt. Anyway, I didn’t really come to any strong conclusions about it.  It seemed cliched to me – with many shopping trolleys and neon lights and loud and harsh noises and people speaking at each other with rat-tat-tat voices making things pretty unpleasant.  But I hadn’t seen that much of the whole play and maybe there was a point to it all – and maybe I wouldn’t have got it even if I had seen it all.  After about 30 minutes or so I let myself out and thought no more about it.

My wife Eva – who’s Greek – organised that we go see her favourite classical Greek playwright – Euripides (It’s funny how one keeps discovering English words and expressions with classical roots – the most obvious here being that exclamation you hear at the footy “you-little-ripper-dees’). Eva told me that the notices indicated that you had to be there on time or you got locked out of the whole thing.

Anyway it was only on arriving I discovered that this was directed by Barrie Kosky.  That was OK by me, I figured what with this guy’s success in Europe I’d see something of interest.  Well perhaps I would have – but I’m afraid I only got through another 30 minutes with the master.  It was the usual post-holocaust scenario.

The Women of Troy | Sydney Theatre CompanyHecuba is hauled on in an Abu Grahib style hood, plonked on a pedestal, has all her possessions removed from her and says a few words of woe.  Then four more women are wheeled on (literally on a trolly) with hoods, shackles and electric wires attached and put on their own pedestals.  One of the women then undergoes depedestalisation, is bashed nearly to death and then shot dead.  She lies there while Cassandra jabbers and jibbers in pretty much the same rat-tat-tat style I remember from Kosky’s King Lear. It’ s virtually impossible to understand but one gets snippets.  Things are not going at all well for the women.  There’s some sound in the background a TV or something, but you wonder if it’s the theatre next door with bad sound insulation. But that makes it even harder to figure out what’s happening.  Then mercifully the TV noises die down.

Then Cassandra gets the same treatment as the previous girl except she’s also dragged into a tin filing cabinet (the back wall is all filing cabinets) and emerges raped with blood streaming from her undies, is repedestalised whereupon she graces us with the big vomit that she’s ingested while being secreted in the filing cabinet.

We left at that stage – another 30 minutes of Barrie to my name – though not without being warned by the usher that we wouldn’t be let back in.

I’m writing this just to let you know.  I’m certainly not saying that you shouldn’t go. There are people whose judgement I’d trust much more than mine who might well say you should. But Barrie and I don’t see eye to eye and I’ll probably stay away in future if warned.  I think I understand some of the points that Barrie is making, but it’s not really my thing.

I’ve reproduced a much more favourable review below the fold – well it’s not quite a ‘review’, it’s a kind of promotional interview.

The Women of Troy by Kelly Griffen
The decimated city of Troy crumbles and burns. The few Trojan men not yet dead, lie bleeding and defiled. The young, mercilessly killed. The women of Troy are all that remain and we, the audience, hang in anguished wait with them until their fate death, slave or concubine to the victorious Greeks is inevitably bestowed. By turning the attention away from the victors of war (why is history always told from their side anyway?) and instead onto those that fare worst, Euripides’ The Women of Troy (415BC) has long been hailed as the archetypal anti-war play.

“Euripides – he’s the man,” asserts Tom Wright, who has worked closely with Director Barry Kosky to bring this ancient text to modern audiences. “Medea, Electra, The Bacchae; they’re all masterpieces that still resonate after nearly two and half thousand years,” he offers, but adds that The Women of Troy stands alone for one reason: “it is unremittingly cruel”.

“It deals with war by describing the immediate aftermath and the way women are ‘commodified’ by conflict. The events of the play are dreadful and they’re presented in a cold way, as if they’re utterly normal. Euripides has written an extraordinary sequence of ‘songs’ [that are] delivered by women struggling to comprehend the cruelty of war and fate; it’s simply astonishing.”

Wait songs?

Yes, affirms Wright, “musicis a huge part of this show. The chorus speeches, where Trojan captives wail of their fate, we’ve replaced with song.” Music from Mozart and Bizet, plus madrigals and folksongs permeate this interpretation, as music is used as a coping mechanism for the women; it comes from their soul.

Wright says he and Kosky, who have collaborated on some fifteen theatre productions, wanted to revive this play, essentially, because of its strong female roles. “Barrie wanted to do The Women of Troy because it gave a great part to Robyn Nevin and a sequence of roles for Melita Jurisic, who are two of our best stage actors.” In one of her first major performances since leaving the Artistic Directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company, Nevin plays the defeated Queen of Troy Hecuba, while Jurisic, returning to Melbourne from Vienna, flexes her acting muscles by playing three characters: Cassandra, Andromache and Helen.

“Barrie and I felt that the three women who visit Hecuba are in many ways the same women; like a nightmare that keeps reoccurring, an accusatory, frightening repetition just in a new wig. Melita’s a mercurial, protean actor, so it suits her,” adds Wright. “These three women, played by Jurisic, he continues, are driven insane by war; it’s three different forms of madness. That’s somehow more poignant when it’s played by the same performer, or at least, hopefully, clearer.”

Over the past century, The Women of Troy has been performed as an allegory that commented on contemporary conflicts such as the Boer War, Hiroshima and, most recently, the War in Iraq. While Wright denies the idea that this interpretation comments on the Iraq War, or more specifically the events that took place at Abu Ghraib, as some reviews of this shows Sydney season asserted, he says, “Barrie has alluded to [the atrocities that occurred in that prison] in the direction; ie the women with sacks over their heads, standing on boxes.” He says it’s not a visual line that runs throughout the play, but an allusion. “The production isn’t trying to score any points or make any direct comment on events in Baghdad [it’s] just inspired by some of those famous dehumanising images that came from Abu Ghraib.

After a brief deviation, Wright returns to this idea. Im not particularly interested in theatre as a site for contemporary political imbroglio being discussed like talkback radio on stage. But one thing theatre can do well is make propositions about human nature. This can be via a piece about Chinese human rights abuses or pandemic sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, but it needs to be about what drives those things and how they work.

“Being anti-war is like saying the sky is blue. A play won’t stop a war. But a play can open up the way war works; physically, spiritually even. It can illustrate, memorialise, reveal. It can give people images, metaphors, ideas to help them formulate a philosophy that might be progressive or it might be reactionary.

Directed by Barrie Kosky, adapted by Tom Wright and starring Robin Nevin and Melita Jurisic, The Women of Troy is on at the CUB Malthouse Theatre November 6 – 22. Tickets are $14 – 49, through the venue: 9685 51111/www.malthousetheatre.com.au.

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Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill(@stephen-hill)
13 years ago

I saw “Women of Troy” at the STC, and it was an unsettling experience which I have had a lot of difficulty pinning down on its merits, leaving me a little divided – more so by the extent to which Tom Wright’s adaptation cut the original play into a 90 minute production. And I can see why you left after half an hour, but I am glad that I persevered as once you got past the overworked opening act it did tend to settle down.

If I was to consider it, the staging was quite interesting and contemporising it with references to Abu Ghraib and disturbingly anonymising the Greek soldiers behind bank-robber masks – provided an eary resonance about the faceless enactation of authority that actually rendered the women’s with more authority. In this I though the disembodied voice upon which the Greek orders were communicated (the voice like a cross between the ferocity of a Nazi commandant and the banality of the voice from Big Brother) was an interesting mechanism to convey the banality of evil of a victorious army ignorant of the universal laws of decency it had transgressed.

And also Kosky was able to utilise his experience as an opera director to good affect, which did add to the atmospherics, even if it did venture a little bit in its music vocabulary into the realm of the kitsch. And as your previous commentator mentioned having Aeneas appear upon an electric wheelchair did communicate the inevitable impotence of his authority.

Yet I thought the play was let down by combining the three women’s roles (Cassandra/Andromache/Helen) into one part, which was both confusing for the audience and tended to diminish the role these women were to play in the performance. As it is through this device – which tended to project that these three varying women spoke with one common voice that I think left Hecuba with a greater obligation to convey her story. Also I thought the performance of Cassandra was hysterically overplayed – it should have been possible to have depicted the madness (a madness afflicted by the Gods in seeing the future madness of mankind) in a manner that didn’t parody Linda Blair from the Exorcist. And while a certain degree of animalism may have conveyed this – I thought the exaggerated performance of Cassandra tended to district from the central affliction of the character in that the audience through focusing on the histrionics was largely unaware of Cassandra’s tragic role as seer – cursed to foresee the future and to be repeatedly ignored by those she would forewarn. And without this I think it downplayed the larger symmetry that is at play in Euripides – that of foreshadowing how the madness of the gods would play out in the lives of the intersecting lives of the victorious Greeks and the vanquished Trojans. Its just a shame we were not given more of the womans’ stories, as Kosky’s pyrotechnics did tend to overwhelm the essential humanity of the play.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
13 years ago

Ordinarily, I would rather stick hot needles in my eyes than see a Kosky production, but am really pissed I missed Women of Troy as Euripides is my favourite tragedian too. From all the reviews I read and knowing Kosky’s so predictable angry and silly ‘take’ on everything, it wouldn’t surprise me if he simply did not understand Euripides. But then again maybe all the reviewers understood neither Kosky or Euripides, but I’ll stick with my first guess.