Trojan woman

At five, she read Greek myths. At 13, Hector was her pin-up. Now Annie Castledine is directing Euripides. By Georgina Brown

The director Annie Castledine's idea of perfect happiness is to be moved to tears in the theatre. So directing Euripides' savage and desperate tragedy Women of Troy has her basking in bliss. It's a weep a minute; a terrible, tense tale of the women who have survived the sacking of Troy only to get carted off to slavery. "It's not only a play's content or the expression of huge emotion that moves me," she says. "It can be an image arriving out of nowhere or the sheer exhilaration of seeing great performance skills - a performer reaching a top A."

Castledine is once again collaborating with Annabel Arden, a founder of Theatre de Complicite. Big women bundled in woolies and bursting with passion and enthusiasm, they make a formidable team. "We share fags and a love of the Greeks," Castledine explains. "I've known the Greek plays and myths since I was five. These characters - the heroes, the gods, the mortals - are as familiar to me as my intimate family, part of the imaginative hinterland, the reservoir into which I dip." While others had Elvis pinned on their bedroom walls, the young Castledine only had eyes for Hector, the greatest of all the Trojan warriors. "As a child, Hector peopled - personed - my room. He's been there and I've spoken to him. Several times." She says this with a deadpan matter-of-factness that elicits a giggle but defies contradiction.

Arden's immersion was similarly early, intense and intimate, but for her the delight of the play is that "it makes you think as well as get emotionally involved. In the theatre - or anywhere else at the moment - there's very little dialogue or debate, no one really thrashing it out. We need plays like this to get us talking. "

A buzz of a less elevated sort began weeks ago when Jane Birkin (Serge Gainsbourg's muse who sang to notoriety with "Je t'aime" in the Sixties) was announced as top of the bill. (Euripides' great arias of verse are tough for a seasoned Shakespearian, so for a film star with a French accent making her British stage debut, the challenge is immense.) Castledine, who, staggeringly, had never heard of Birkin or "Je t'aime", says she saw in her precisely the quality she wanted for Andromache. Three years ago Birkin's lover and father died in the space of a week. "Her pain was so tangible, it was like her skin was only barely holding her in. She is so unaffected, so herself. A strange liaison, me and Jane, but there we are. She is so pure, like a gentle pained dove. Wonderful physically. Vocally? We'll see."

Last week, Castledine's Hecuba also caused a stir. Rosemary Harris, nominated for an Oscar for Tom & Viv, has not been given permission to bunk off and attend the awards ceremony. Castledine and Harris remain devoted to one another, nevertheless. They have worked together before, most recently on Arsenic and Old Lace. "If you've had a thrilling creative journey with someone, you want to pick up where you've left off. I was casting Hecuba from a position of frailty and female beauty as opposed to huge strength. The strength has to be found through the vulnerability. I also wanted a performer who could be at home with the concept of being a queen, and a rather rich queen, without us ever having to talk about it. There are certain things that you want to be acted qualities and certain things you want to be natural qualities. Rosemary Harris has a natural grace; she has to find that deep reservoir of grief, that understanding of pain in the depths of her imagination," explains Castledine, her reply building into a speech of roundly annunciated, emphatic statements - a reminder that she was once a teacher, and doubtless a visionary one.

The four lead actors could scarcely be more sharply contrasting. Josette Bushell-Mingo plays Cassandra ("I always want to work with her, in every single piece of work that I do, but I have to ration myself. A director can do anything or go anywhere with such a performer.") And Janie Dee, best known for singing and dancing up a storm in Carousel, plays perhaps the hardest role of all, Helen of Troy, the Marilyn Monroe of myth. "I fell in love with Janie at the audition," Castledine says. "And I thought, this person will well be able to encompass Helen of Troy, a woman who is desire. She is the personification of desire and she inspires desire, that flame of desire that possesses a being so that every rational thought is abandoned."

Castledine calls Women of Troy the ultimate anti-war play. "Euripides is saying that there is an integrity to war, but the emphasis and condemnation lies in the fact that there has been extraordinary slaughter over and beyond the conquest of a people. Our priority then and now is to extend our hands across cultural barriers to grasp our common humanity. If we ignore that, we are condemning the whole human race; I think that's what Euripides thought."

To help the cast make connections between Euripides' concerns and contemporary warfare she showed them footage of forced movements of people, the diaspora, the situation in the Balkan states, the Kurds, Iraq, Iran. Arden, meanwhile, began work on what she calls the "physical text". "I'm concerned with the quality of presence and stillness on stage. What we want is heightened naturalism. It's not choreography, not mime, not gestural. It explores how you express shame or pain or grief without resorting to the sort of thing you see on television where people contort their face in agony. I'm interested in the qualities that a great piece of either figurative or abstract sculpture can project; it's all to do with angle and mass and tension." As Castledine says, they are at pains to avoid "a splurging generalised emotionality. These characters aren't indulging in self-pity, they are probing how it is that this terrible thing has happened."

Castledine confesses that it's the hardest thing she's done, but also the most sublime. "When you spend so many weeks in the presence of a great playwright with a challenging voice and a political consciousness, then your quality of life goes into the stratosphere. The choices you make are much more important." One choice was not to use masks, preferring a less stylised approach, but to use veils instead. "A veil is a mask analogy. Veils are sometimes seen as a symbol of oppression but they are actually about power. In this play the disempowered women have language and their veils, which they can use to obliterate their features from those they don't want to look at them." It was an idea she had while walking down London's Edgware Road. "I saw two women and was struck by their friendship, yet one was very Westernised - not veiled - and one wasn't. One was making a statement about not wanting to be looked at in a Western way, but there was no conflict."

It is inventive touches such as this which have won her praise in the past for making classical theatre "accessible and appealing". But she claims that she never considers the age or status of a play. "The curse of our theatre is the linear, suburban imagination which has to be literal about time and place. These characters - us in extraordinary mould - speak for us in those two hours that we are sharing the act of theatre; we should say, `yes' we have thought that, `yes' we have felt that, `yes' we would like to scream like that; in doing it for us, the characters allow us to also experience the scream. Hugely cathartic, hugely important. Classless, timeless, placeless. "

n For details, see listings below

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain