If you think that orchestrating a cast of some 120 performers would be headache enough, there's also the little problem that The Suppliants is the only surviving drama in a lost Danaid tetralogy. This would have gone on to reveal, among other things, how, once they are forced into marriage, all but one of the sisters get their honeymoon off to a flying start by murdering their husbands on their wedding night. Nothing daunted, Romanian director Silviu Purcarete has pieced together a version that runs as an unbroken one-and-three-quarter-hour spectacular.
Purcarete is best known in this country for the hypnotic, moonlit Phaedra that he brought to life in 1995. The conflict in that between militant chastity, sexual passion and the claims of fertility is also one of the central themes in Les Danaides. The sisters' moral position reminded me of William Empson's witty and wise remark that "a monk oughtn't to have a baby, but somebody else has to have babies, if only to keep up the supply of monks" - or, indeed, of high-minded virgins.
I think, though, that the Danaid myth poses more problems for an audience and director than does Phaedra. For a start, you don't need to be Henri Bergson to realise that what might be moving if performed by a chorus of 10, can look more than faintly ridiculous when performed by half a hundred (who are all dressed alike) - it de-individuates them and, at times here, renders them comically object-like.
At the end, for example, there's a stunning moment when one of the group of gods who provide a cynical running commentary casually knocks over a set of dominoes and this domino-effect causes the women and their suitcases to topple over as well. Apt, at this moment, that they should look as if they have been reduced to things. Less so, beforehand.
The timeless landscape of Purcarete's Phaedra suited the unending mythic conflict it dramatised. But the many analogies with contemporary problems in Les Danaides (the rights of asylum for refugees, to mention but one) make the stark timelessness of the setting feel a bit of a cop-out, especially when you compare the show with, say, Katie Mitchell's delicately Balkanised Phoenecian Women.
The customary Purcarete magic is often in evidence in the poetry he can produce from minimal means (turning suitcases into every manner of defence and nightdresses into eerie candlelit tents on the wedding night). Newcomers will love it; fans may be disappointed.
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