A group of women form the shape of a boat – one of those boats we are used to see in media pictures these days, unseaworthy but still trying to cross the Mediterranean from Lybia or other North African countries to Italy, or from Turkey to Greece, and too full of people. Like the boat that was once carrying Aylan Kurdi and the many others who perished like him. The women here are a group of multi-ethnic teenagers and young adults from Greater Manchester, waving poles with a white flag and wrapping black scarves around their bodies – to symbolise both, their hope for peace and asylum and their desperation if those are not granted (the scarves can be made into hoses to hang themselves).
The scene is the stage of the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and the women are part of a modern interpretation of one of the world’s oldest plays, written by Aeschylus in Ancient Greece around 2500 years ago.
The women as a collective and on their own make their case for asylum – they have escaped forced marriage to their cousins in the land of Egypt and taken refuge in the temple of Argos, accompanied by their father who also pleads on their behalf to the king of Argos, Pelasgus. Pelasgus is torn between his beliefs of what is right, his fear of the Gods, and the fact that if he lets the women stay, war with their Egyptian cousins who are bound to want them back will follow. The women argue, plead, threaten suicide and claim their rights, and ultimately convince Pelasgus. But he will not take the decision by himself – this is ancient Greece after all, the birthplace of democracy – it is up to the people (well, in reality the men) of Argos to do so in a vote. What Pelasgus does, though, is that in the way he narrates the choice to be made to the citizens of Argos, he ensures the vote will go in favour of granting the women asylum.
When the Egyptian men who want to forcefully claim the women back as their property arrive on Argos’ shores, the brave people of Argos defy them and stand by their vote to grant asylum. They send the invaders back – with words only this time but the Egyptians are bound to return and wage war – in fact, the suppliant women is part of a trilogy whose other two parts are lost, thus we don’t know how it all ends. This first play ends in a cliff-hanger: With an encounter between the suppliant women and the people of Argos that reveals asylum was granted on the understanding that the women eventually live the normal lives of the citizen of Argos – which includes getting married, the fate they had fled from. In the Royal Exchange the women seem to have the last word with a call for social justice, but we are never sure if they are really safe according to what safety means to them.
The play is mesmerizing in the way it is being performed, and sound and movement combined are almost hypnotic – a great feat made even more remarkable by the fact that, as in Ancient Greece, all women and other members of the chorus are lay people and only three professional actors were on stage. Throughout the play there were abundant references to the here and now, to Syria and refugees, to the meanings of democracy, and to the ways in which public engagement and discourse determine peoples lives.
Looking at the cast of the young women who really were the stars of the show, it also reminded one of the things that have become great about the UK: its diversity, ethnically, culturally – in spite of the racism and prejudices that always linger in the background as well. But in so many ways, so many of us ‘foreigners’ are here because there is a feeling that at least in its major cities, the UK is a place that does really strive on openness and on embracing (rather than eliminating) differences. Thus even if only mentioned indirectly – the play can also be read as the start of an elegy for post-Brexit Britain. A Britain that might not only close its borders to those who seek refuge, but become much more inward looking and over time much less diverse, ethnically, culturally and in everyday encounters. I saw the play on the day after the House of Commons had voted down any amendments to the Brexit bill, including those that would have granted EU citizens already living here the right to stay as a matter beyond doubt. As I listened to the way in which King Pelasgus spoke about what was morally right, and in doing so convincing the people of Argos to grant asylum to the suppliant women, I was reminded of all the lost opportunities during the Brexit debates. Almost nobody made the case for Europe as a moral project, a project based on a system of core values, in public speeches to counter the simplistic and exclusionary narratives that dominated much of the debate.
In so many ways, this brilliantly staged play could not be more topical.
The Suppliant Women is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until 1 April 2017.
A new movement that started in Frankfurt and has expanded to many European cities beyond, including Bath as the thus far only UK city, PulseofEurope, takes up the call to celebrate and mobilise for the values that bind ‘us’ as European citizens together – and will hopefully have a Manchester chapter soon!