Theatre: Less is more when every detail counts

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The Independent Culture
THE IDEA that nothing succeeds like excess was comprehensively belied, for my taste, two years ago when the Romanian director, Silviu Purcarete, brought across his huge production of Les Danaides. This was his bold recreation of a tetralogy by Aeschylus, only the first part of which (The Suppliants) survives intact. How big the forces were in the original production is not known, but Purcarete seized on the scale of the story - in which the 50 virgin daughters of Danaos flee from their 50 hot-blooded male cousins and seek asylum in Argos - as a literal-minded justification for filling the stage with over 120 bodies. The result, though, was often more ludicrous than epic. De-individualised by their sheer numbers, and performing synchronised antics, the chorus could have been taking part in a homage to Busby Berkeley.

There are no such lapses of taste in James Kerr's spare, focused staging of The Suppliants at the Gate. It's a production in which every little detail tells. This is evident from the start when the first of the 15- strong chorus arrives on the sand at one end of the set and hesitates before placing a bare foot on the long tiled floor that represents Argive land and possible sanctuary. This momentous transition is powerfully communicated.

Full of beautiful choral odes (music by Mick Sands) where the voices cascade over each other as they beseech Zeus for protection, the staging adroitly heightens a sense of the women's vulnerability. There is, for example, an unsettling contrast between the classical grey dresses of the daughters and the modern military khaki of David Oyelowo's excellently uneasy Argive king and his two henchmen. In one particularly fine sequence, the chorus express their relief at being granted asylum with a bout of high-spirited, tickling horse-play, ending up in a giddy heap on the floor. At that moment, their father, Danaos (Roy Sampson), spots the ship of their pursuers on the horizon. The lighting dims, leaving a horrifyingly suggestive darkness at one end of the set. The women back away from this slowly like a single organism of traumatised panic until, in another disturbing touch, the same actors who played their potential salvation, re-appear as the brutish yobs who want to carry them off.

An eloquent simplicity is the hallmark of the production's effects. The women's request confronts the Argive king with a dreadful dilemma: to comply is to risk belligerent reprisals from their cousins: to refuse is to risk the wrath of their protector, Zeus. To reinforce their threat to hang themselves from the statues of the gods, the chorus here unbind the decorative cords from their arms, hold them aloft, and let them drop to the floor in a gesture pregnant with warning.

Apart from the sentimental use of a little girl, which seems like an insurance policy against our not being sufficiently moved by the adult plight, only one thing marred my appreciation. On the night I attended the production, in which there are long, charged silences, there was the distracting thump of disco music from the pub below - a home-made Brechtian alienation effect no one could have bargained for.

To 12 Dec (0171-229 5387)