In a concrete bunker, women in ball gowns huddle and shiver, their improbable elegance betrayed by the bruises on their upper arms. Survivors of a losing side in war, they wait to be shipped out as prostitutes and slaves to the victors. The experience has nearly deadened them, but they reapply makeup in a futile attempt to maintain civility. This action is clearly a metaphor for what Katie Mitchell is attempting overall in “Women of Troy” with Euripides’ famously undramatic text: to offer images of superficial beauty that accentuate the horror the play describes. Inevitably, however, these images also draw attention to the director’s prowess.
As such, the production feeds debate about Mitchell’s auteur status: To some, she’s a self-serving show-woman; to others, a visionary whose non-naturalistic approach is a jolting corrective to the hidebound, text-based British theater establishment. This staging is undoubtedly stunning, but its technical achievement and high level of formality render it disturbing rather than moving; it’s hard to believe this was Mitchell’s intent, given the raw timeliness of the subject matter.
Bunny Christie’s set — a side cutout of two floors of a barren warehouse, with functioning industrial lifts and corrugated metal doors — establishes the tone of monumental yet detailed austerity. Paule Constable and Jon Clark light some of the areas coldly white and leave others depressingly dim (though some critics’ claims that the action takes place in near-darkness are exaggerated). The time period is purposely ambiguous: Vicki Mortimer’s frocks have 1940s shapes, but the Greek officers — imagined brilliantly as officious civil servants in hooded anoraks — whip us into the present day when they pull out cell phones. The women move furtively, twitching even while they stand in one place.
The disquiet this restless atmosphere creates merely paves the way for the horrible events that befall the women, in particular the dowager Hecuba, here played by Kate Duchene as a handsome middle-aged woman clinging to her elegance and femininity.
First, her virgin daughter Cassandra is given to Agamemmnon as chattel; then, her baby grandson is wrenched away from his mother and murdered, his body brought back in a hard-sided black briefcase (one of Mitchell’s most cruelly imaginative details). Finally, the cause of all this woe, Helen (in a strikingly sexualized performance by Susie Trayling), manages to talk her way back into husband Menelaus’ good graces, against Hecuba’s argument that she be killed.
Duchene receives each piece of bad news with battered resignation: She does not howl or weep, only grows more drawn and brittle. The character’s regal detachment is an understandable directorial choice — if she played at full emotional tilt, the play could become hysterical — but it has the result of keeping the audience at an uneasy remove. This effect is furthered by Don Taylor’s version of the text, which uses modern colloqualism but retains the formality.
Each choral passage is signaled by the loud, creaking noise of an unseen metal shutter opening to cast a slightly warmer frontal light on the women, who speak forward, looking over the audience’s heads, as if to a confessor or accuser. A final element that keeps the performance in the realm of the presentational are dance breaks (in the style of one of Mitchell’s artistic heroes, Pina Bausch): The women raise their arms around invisible partners and waltz around the ugly space.
It’s all enormously impressive, paradoxically hypnotic and hard to watch; we are made to witness the horror and endure the bureaucratic tedium of a society after disaster. Mitchell has said she wanted to put audiences in mind of contemporary Iraq, and in this she succeeds. One is left wondering, though, if she meant to leave our hearts so unengaged.