The performance history of Euripides’ Trojan Women is the history of human conflict; originally written to explore Athenian guilt at its treatment of prisoners of war in 411BC, it crops up whenever a society is uneasy about its conduct in war. Caroline Bird’s 2012 adaptation, coming on the heels of revelations about American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, is the latest version in this pattern.
The play tells the story of the women left behind after the sack of Troy: Hecuba, the defeated queen, her mad daughter Cassandra, her perfect daughter-in-law Andromache, and, of, course, the woman who started it all, the beautiful and manipulative Helen.
Bird’s adaption is set in the mother and baby unit of a hospital where the women are being guarded by the hapless herald Talthybius, played with dry wit by Jack Kinnaird. The director, Jessica Walker, chose to stage this production in the round, bringing the audience on stage with the prisoners. Played through at a breakneck hour and ten minutes, the production maintained a level of emotional tension broken only by occasional moments of bitter humour.
The production hangs on its central character, Hecuba, who never leaves the stage. Phoebe Ingram (EDH) gave an astonishingly mature and passionate performance, capturing the essence of the Trojan grande dame brought low. Self-centred, arrogant and often cruel, the audience must nonetheless sympathise with Hecuba as she loses her kingdom, her husband and her children. Ingram gave the final scene, in which Hecuba prepares the body of her grandson for burial, genuine pathos and dignity.
Although female characters take centre stage, their destinies are dominated by men. Tom Knight played Menelaus as a power-hungry tyrant, obsessed with his own machismo yet twisted around the beautifully manicured finger of Helen (Elaina McAllister).
This was a groundbreaking production for Shrewsbury in many ways; entirely conceived of and organised by the students, it showed the standard of theatre which they are capable of creating. I hope there may be many more such projects in the future.