Aeschylus at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

I have always had a penchant for ritualistic theatre and there is no better medium for experiencing it than Greek drama. The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus, presented by the Actors Touring Company at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, provides an excellent opportunity because of the central role taken by the female chorus. Unless the numbers employed for the latter are reduced to a dozen or so, few theatre companies can afford to engage professional actors for the chorus. Here between thirty and forty local volunteers were enlisted and the results were startlingly good.

Superbly directed in their grouping and demeanour by Ramin Gray, in movement and dance by Sasha Milavic Davies and vocalisation by Betha Allen, the girls maintained a grip on the audience’s attention throughout by their tight discipline and complete involvement in the drama. That the production flowed so effectively was much to do with the music composed by John Browne, combined with the resonant text of David Greig’s version of the original. The declamatory chants of the chorus called for and were given accuracy in pitch and tone. Percussion and an aulos (a double flute) with their plangent timbre supplied continuity and aural environment.

There were limited opportunities for individual actors, but Oscar Batterham was authoritative as the king seeking to find a rational solution to the problem of female refugees seeking a safe refuge in a foreign land, while Omar Ebrahim, as the father of the brood, convinced with his emotional outpourings.

And what did the play say to us across the 2,500 years since it was written? The answer is, a great deal, given the contemporary relevance of its themes: the plight of women forced to submit to cultural conventions on marriage and fertility; and that of refugees seeking shelter and hospitality from an alien community. Nor, in the period following the Brexit referendum, can we ignore the determination of their fate by democratic decision, good or bad.

But the evening, which incidentally reaffirmed the kinship between Greek drama and opera, was, above all, a triumph of theatrical style.