Theatre The Invisible Woman The Phoenician Women The Gate / RSC The Pit, London
Friday 28 June 1996
Paul Godfrey's The Invisible Woman is a reworking of Terence's The Mother- in-Law. Running the full length of the Gate's interior, Lucy Weller's set almost makes you laugh out loud. As a modern substitute for the row of front doors that's often the location of Roman comedy, a hotel corridor confronts you, more than faintly absurdist in its looming proportions and single shade of tomato soup. This is the world of key-cards and of piped muzak which washes over the proceedings with implacable empty-headedness throughout.
What happens in this confined space soon wipes the smile off your face, however. Terence's play depends upon an indulgent attitude towards rape that a contemporary audience cannot but find repugnant. A young wife has gone into hiding to give birth to the baby that is the consequence of an assault she suffered before her marriage and which she has kept hidden from her husband. The husband's former whore and the recognition of a ring bring it to light that the rapist was none other than the husband.
In Terence, with a certain amount of covering up, this produces a happy ending. In the current drolly sour version, directed by the author and Ramin Gray, what it leaves is a very nasty taste. The whore is degradingly and cheaply bought off: "Is this justice or just this?" she asks, with a saddened shrug at the shabby small-spiritedness of the episode. The effect of the updating is to make The Invisible Woman feel like a watered- down problem comedy, an All's Well That Ends Well without the heart.
It's not muzak but ritual chanting that vibrates through Katie Mitchell's stunning account of Euripides's The Phoenician Women, transferred to the Pit from Stratford. Like Henry VI Part III, which she recently staged, this play is about civil war, centring on the fratricidal strife between Eteocles and Polyneices, the sons born from the incest of Oedipus and Jocasta. Once again, though, Mitchell leaves the modern Balkan parallels implicit in a production which, with its candlelit statues of the gods and its formal intensity, makes the extremities of suffering feel at once immediate and immoral.
The principals emerge from and blend back into the mixed-sex chorus who, in their long rust and brown-grey coats, swirl and stamp around the stage, beating rhythms on breasts and floor, reacting to the horror as innocent in-transit foreigners trapped there by the invasion. The passion, the control and the slow suspenseful pacing of the action call for the highest praise. As Antigone, Lucy Whybrow makes a shattering transition from a nervy, excited girl to an adult whom grief has left ecstatic with principled outrage. You hear, abstractly, the massing of flies when the dead bodies are dragged in - just one of many fine details in an unbroken, punishingly powerful two-and-a-quarter hours.
n The Gate: 0171-229 5387
The Pit: 0171-638 8891
TVJamie's Sugar Rush reveal's campaigning chef's new foe
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What marriage would look like if we actually followed the Bible
- 3 'Heartbreaking' Syria orphan photo wasn't taken in Syria and not of orphan
- 5 Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
The Gamechangers trailer: Daniel Radcliffe stars in GTA movie
Three million books were judged by their covers - this is what happened
Anne Hathaway is already being stung by Hollywood ageism, aged 32
No Escape, film review: Thriller generates plenty of excitement but soon collapses
The Lobster trailer: Colin Farrell has 45 days to find a lover or he'll be turned into an animal
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees