Would you like to encounter a latter-day Persephone incarcerated in Yorkshire? Or how about Hypsipyle in Washington on the day of the Capitol Hill insurrection? What if we could see the familiar stories of women passed down the centuries to us through the plays of Euripides completely afresh as if those women were not distant figures but our contemporaries? How would we view them?
Perhaps you might meet Creusa, who was raped by Apollo and gave birth to a son, in contemporary Shoreditch. Or rub shoulders with Medea in a Midlands town. Maybe you would see this woman you encounter as an ordinary woman under pressure-- just like you and me-- rather than the witchy monster of myth and Greek drama.
The women of ancient myth are revisited and reinvented at the Rose Theatre in Kingston this week where Colin Teevan’s The Seven Pomegranate Seeds, starring Niamh Cusack and Shannon Hayes, is being directed by Melly Still.
Still, a glorious, strongly visual director who was responsible for the National Theatre hit, Coram Boy, has already has successes at this address with April de Angelis’ two part adaptation of Elena Ferente’s My Brilliant Friend (which transferred to the NT) and Rona Munro’s stage version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which subsequently went into the West End.
“I love myths, but there is no denying that many of them are problematic in the way that they present women and rape and violence,” says Still, pointing out that Euripides’ “wrote Medea to warn men about women.”
The show is part of a bold debut season, instigated by new artistic director Christopher Haydon with the aim of reinventing the South West London theatre--modelled on the original Bankside Tudor Rose theatre--and establishing it as a destination for theatre-goers from all across London. Still’s production (she is both director and designer) is making a virtue of the rabbit warren nature of the theatre, and exploiting the nooks and crannies of a space which Still likens to a cross between “a block of flats in Tower Hamlets and an ancient Greek amphitheatre.”
Many directors and designers try to treat the Rose like a proscenium arch theatre and end up crushing all that makes it so distinctive, but Still is embracing its idiosyncrasies, stripping the theatre back so that the drama emerges out of the darkness as if from the very unconsciousness of a woman facing up to the past and dealing with the resulting trauma.
Interwoven into this one woman’s experience of violence and distress –a narrative which acts like a thread running through the show-- are the stories of some of the most famous and in some cases, notorious, women of myth. Abandoned children and murderous impulses are re-examined to shed new light on human behaviour.
Jason and Medea, 1759 (oil on canvas); by Loo, Carle van (1705-65); 63×79 cm; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Pau, France
“The challenge,” says Still, “when these women have existed for so many centuries in so many narrative versions is how can we reclaim them and their experiences and look at them differently. I don’t want to stop loving these myths, but it is time to recognize that these are stories of rape, abduction and mortal submission to the gods and we have to rethink that violence and how we understand it today.”
The audiences of ancient Greece went to the theatre to experience catharsis, and Still believes that these reimagined versions of old stories can do the same for us. In a programme note, Still writes that the stories “give voice to the unimaginable and unspeakable and they subvert some of the tropes born of the fear that possibly sparked Euripides’ plays in the first place.”
When we talk on the day of the get-in, she adds: “The stories enable us to channel trauma. At the centre of the piece is a woman reliving her past and what enables her to do that is storytelling. These stories are powerful.”
Still sees her directorial role as being that of a guide: “We go into the dark with her, and I hope that is echoed in the darkness of the Rose itself. I see this as a site-responsive production-- actually that doesn’t go far enough-- it is a site-specific production made for this space. One that tells the stories of women just like us, women we can see clearly.” Perhaps for the very first time.
Cover image from The Seven Pomegranate Seeds.