"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Mr Feelbad: Euripides' Women of Troy

Katie Mitchell's latest production, Euripides' bleak tragedy Women of Troy, opens tomorrow night at the National Theatre and I caught a preview last night. When I looked again at my tattered Penguin translation by Philip Vellacott and read the scene: "The ruins of Troy, two days after the city's capture, before dawn. First are seen only silhouettes of shattered buildings against a red glow and rising smoke..." I imagined we might be shimmying down to old Baghdad town but the play opened in what looked like a prisoner of war processing centre, a very British-looking bleak institutional building with an upper floor where the imprisoned Helen paced like a mad woman in the attic. Done here in a translation by the late Don Taylor, Mitchell appears to have dispensed with the Gods and this is all on a very human scale. In Vellacott's version the play opens with some fine poetry from Poseidon ("I come from the salt depths of the Aegean Sea/Where the white feet of Nereids tread their circling dance") promising ruin for the impious Greeks who have violated sacred shrines, but in the new version we cut straight to Hecuba lamenting the ruin of Troy and the fate of its women who are now at the mercy of the invaders. The production is nonetheless visually and dramatically exciting with some spooky music and sound effects and Mitchell's trademark choreography of jumpy posh women in frocks (aka the Chorus). In a short intense version like this (lasting barely an hour and twenty minutes without an interval) something has to go and it looks as though it is the poetry but it's still an exciting show. Euripides is not a feelgood kind of guy and his vision is stark, seeming to dismiss even the role of the gods in human affairs - it's all random suffering. By focussing on the atrocities of the Greeks he probably didn't do himself any favours in Athens where the Costa Tragedy Award in 415 BC went instead to Xenocles whom no one has ever heard of since. Well worth an outing.

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