Ever get a feeling of djà vu? As the strip lights flicker into life in Katie Mitchell's new staging of Euripides' Women of Troy, anyone who saw Pinter's The Hothouse (also in the Lyttelton) will be doing a double take. We are stuck in the bowels of another sinister, brutalist concrete edifice.
Though The Hothouse was a darkly comic nightmare, the visual parallel suggests Euripides' and Pinter's political worlds aren't dissimilar. The unseen dictators in Mitchell's modern-day Troy are the Greek generals, coldly dispensing orders by phone, while Kate Duchêne's Hecuba and her companions are being held, incarcerated, by Michael Gould's Talthybius, a bureaucrat-turned-jailer with briefcase and anorak.
The difference is that these women are PoWs, and we witness their panic and emotional agonies. In fact, this tragedy is a series of war crimes. Hecuba loses two daughters: Sinead Matthews' fraught Cassandra is dragged away, then her mother learns that her other child, Polyxena, has also been sacrificed, then the infant of her in-law Andromache (Anastasia Hille) is slaughtered too.
Yet for all these horrors, this production is only sporadically harrowing. One outstanding moment turns to intense poignancy as Andromache presents Hecuba with all that remains of Polyxena, in a plastic shopping bag. She reaches in and with resonances of the Holocaust silently lifts out a pair of shoes. In place of Ancient Greek choric song and dance, there are haunting passages where everyone whirls in a slow, ghostly ballroom dance to crackling bursts of jazz like a disturbed dream of lost times.
Regrettably though, this production is hit and miss, and peculiarly disappointing when it comes to the spoken word. Duchêne can sound oddly wooden, though the intention must be to convey repressed pain and exhaustion. Matthews' crazed Cassandra swallows some of her lines too as she darts around starting fires in steel rubbish bins. I'm afraid I also found it hard to believe that all these women, while bewailing the endless forms of pain inflicted on them by the gods, would keep staggering around this prison in four-inch stilettos.
Those familiar with Mitchell's works may ultimately see Women of Troy as an artistic sequel to her Iphigenia at Aulis but repeating rather too many directorial trademarks and, in the move towards dance-theatre, borrowing from Pina Bausch.
Some fans on Broadway evidently weren't in two minds about Doubt. John Patrick Shanley won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 2005 for his self-styled "parable", set in a 1960s Bronx Catholic school. But is he really that good?
As it happens, the same question is being asked about Shanley's protagonist, Father Flynn. However, the inquiry hanging over the priest's head is a far more pressing moral one. The school's stern principal, Sister Aloysius, believes that he is abusing one of the boys. Shanley and director Nicolas Kent make you oscillate over whether Flynn is really guilty or the nun is dressing up her paranoia as righteousness. Dearbhla Molloy, as Aloysius, ensures you warm to her dry humour before you glimpse her potential malignity. Meanwhile, Pádraic Delaney, as Flynn, defends himself with a passion that is persuasive but might just be guilt-ridden.
For all that, though, Doubt never feels like more than a minor, B-rate drama, touching on the far-reaching issue of intolerance but palpably calculated as it racks up the conflict and limited in its character developments.
No priest is to be seen, though Christian symbolism certainly lingers in the sleazy, brutal Irish town we lurch around in Crestfall. This is a controversial triptych of poetic/graphic monologues by Mark O'Rowe who also scripted Boy A, Monday's outstanding Channel 4 drama [reviewed opposite].
I have some cavils about Crestfall (which was written in 2003) but it is, nonetheless, an admirably strong piece as presented by Theatre 503, with a cast including Niamh Cusack (left). Róisí* McBrinn's staging is spare and increasingly riveting. Three women lean against shadowy brick walls, as if trapped in some spiritual dark alley. Each in turn steps forward to speak of one fatal day in this hellhole.
First is Olive (Pauline Hutton), a tarty sexoholic who scorns her suicidal husband as a wimp. The second, Alice (Cusack), is a contrastingly prim, protective mother who struggles to save her young son from a nightmarish initiation rite the visceral slaughter of a horse. Lastly, Tilly (rising star Orla Fitzgerald) is a prostitute, entangled in the others' stories via her pimp. Witnessing a climactic retributive bloodbath, she saves a baby from the wreckage, rinsing him clean in the river.
The Christian imagery is rather obvious and O'Rowe's heavily alliterative, highly stylised descriptions can sound clotted, but they grow on you. As for the sex en route (with several men and a dog) and the shotgun massacre, I occasionally felt I was watching a video nasty dressed up as poetry. But Crestfall does not glorify the brutality. Its close-ups are pungently vivid and grim. Moreover, O'Rowe is positioning himself within a long tradition here, echoing Joyce and Tom Murphy but also going right back to medieval sagas and even the gory horrors of Euripides' The Bacchae. Impressive Fringe fare.
'Women of Troy' (020 7452 3000) to 27 February; 'Doubt' (020 7328 1000) to 12 January; 'Crestfall' (020 7978 7040) to 15 December
Further reading 'Euripides: Plays 1' which includes The Bacchae (Methuen, 9.99)Reuse content