Birkin triumphs as victim of a timeless war story

First Night: Women of Troy The Olivier Theatre

From heavy breathing to heavy acting: those who know Jane Birkin solely through all that sub-orgasmic gasping on Je t'aime... moi non plus can now get a crash career update on her at the National Theatre.

In Annie Castledine's graphic, frequently affecting production of Women of Troy, she plays Andromache, widow of Hector and one of the group of women waiting to be parcelled out to the conquering Greek leaders and shipped off to slavery.

She's first seen trundled in on a baggage trolley and draped as though she were a mere spoil of war. Our last glimpse is of her being carted off up the Olivier's central aisle, her hand forked out in traumatised maternal love to the baby son now in the clutches of the soldier who will despatch him to his execution. In between, with her fragile ballet dancer beauty and pained gravity, Birkin is a haunting presence. If the voice is frankly inadequate, the context very nearly makes a virtue of the deficiency; the strained, proper tones she talks in have the cut-off, convert-like quality of someone cauterized by an excess of horror.

Euripides' searing look at war from the point of view of the vanquished was first performed two and a half thousand years ago but it knew then that it was for all time. Prophesying the iconic status to which she and her fellow victims will be elevated, Hecuba asks (in this new Kenneth McLeish translation): "Why did [the gods] do this, uproot the world/ To make a myth of us."

Castledine's production fuses ancient myth with modern reality by setting the play in a vast, bombed out contemporary stadium that is also evocative of a Greek amphitheatre.

The casting is often against type - successful in the case of Rosemary Harris's very moving Hecuba who is refinement at bay rather than that toughened redoubtability; more controversial in the case of Janie Dee who plays Helen of Troy as a suburbanite Texan minx in the Marilyn Monro dress from the Seven Year Itch. She gets across Helen's barefaced self- justifying cheek, but it's hard to believe this femme could ever have been fatale.

Paul Taylor

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