In a Time of Want: The Trojan Women

Alicia Corts*

Trojanki (The Trojan Women), written by Euripides. Directed by Jan Klata. Produced by the Wybrzeże Theatre, Gdansk, Poland. Presented at the Imre Madách International Theatre Meeting, Budapest, Hungary, 5 June 2023. Performed in Polish with Hungarian and English subtitles. Dramaturgy by Olga Śmiechowicz. Scenography by Mirek Kaczmarek. Music by Michał Nihil Kuźniak. Stage movement by Maćko Prusak.

The Greek army assembles to inspect the spoils of war. Trojanki (The Trojan Women) of Wybrzeże Theatre. Cezary Rybiński (Talthybius), Michał Kowalski (Odysseus), Michał Jaros (Neoptolemus), Grzegorz Gzyl (Menelaus), Robert Ninkiewicz (Agamemnon), Krzysztof Matuszewski (Polymestor), Jacek Labijak (Theoclymenus). Photo: Michał Szlaga

The Wybrzeże Theatre production of Trojanki (The Trojan Women) was precipitously timed at its presentation at the Imre Madách International Theatre Meeting in Budapest, Hungary: the world continues to reel from the coronavirus restrictions, the incursion of Russia into the sacred territory of the Ukraine and the rise of far-right nationalism globally. This production scrapes away the artifices of government and culture down to the rawest form of humanity, and in doing so, the curse that has befallen this group of women seems dangerously close to infecting the audience as well. Jan Klata’s direction converts the experience of the Trojan women to a universal understanding of conquest and the need for ultimate power.

The city of sand. Trojanki (The Trojan Women). Photo: Michał Szlaga

If Troy was meant to be a city of riches and splendor, the scenography makes clear that we are no longer in a world that can support such wealth. The minimalism of the set communicates the devastation in a single glance: the floor covered in sand, a metallic scaffold stage and harsh, cold lighting. Cassandra (Agata Woźnicka) stands on the scaffold, silent, bathed in the chilling light, a guitar hanging loosely across her body. The audience’s pre-show chatting with friends seems to overcome her presence. While we notice Cassandra as a spoil of war, she is distanced enough from us to ignore her completely in favor of our own sartorial pleasures.

That ignorance comes to an end as the lights dim and Cassandra begins shredding notes from the guitar. The urgent, heavy metal edge to Michał Nihil Kuźniak’s excellent score moved the attention of the audience from the opening notes and continued to do so throughout the evening. Cassandra’s guitar became her commentary as the story unfolded, a reminder of her all-knowing presence and rage. Her perch atop the scaffold allows her to see all of the devastation, but she is unable to do anything but stand in silent judgment. She knows the fate of all present, but there is no way for her to express her raging emotions except through this unmistakable and unavoidable sound. The music brought Cassandra’s seething reality into sharp focus throughout the production, reminding the audience of war’s effect on humanity.

The women of Troy. Trojanki (The Trojan Women), Magdalena Boć (Acanthus), Dorota Kolak (Hecuba), Katarzyna Dałek (Andromache), Magdalena Gorzelańczyk (Polyxena), Sylwia Góra (Apollonia). Photo: Michał Szlaga

Klata did a masterful job of getting the audience to the edge of distancing themselves from the fate of the Trojan women before violently pulling us back into their reality. As the women appear onstage for the first time, the sensuousness of the scenography works to remind us of the hellscape of war, and once that pattern is established, the heaviness rarely lets up. Olga Śmiechowicz’s minimal set served as the canvas for her organic and evocative costumes. Hecuba and the Trojan women were dressed in morphing black plastic fabric that evoked images of emergency clothing given to victims of natural disasters. The black plastic jumpsuits fanned out at the bottom to become wide, sweeping skirts that connected the women together. The skirts floated and dragged over the sand, at once evocative of waves on the oceans and trash tossed by those same waves onto the shore. Costuming can easily become a gimmick, but this production used the dresses as a second skin constantly connecting the characters to the Trojan landscape.

The rustling of the costumes connected the characters with the Trojan landscape. Magdalena Gorzelańczyk (Polyxena), Sylwia Góra (Apollonia), Magdalena Boć (Acanthus), Dorota Kolak (Hecuba), Katarzyna Dałek (Andromache),  Karolina Kowalska (Enya), Katarzyna Figura (Helena). Photo: Michał Szlaga
Hecuba (Dorota Kolak) surveys the devastation. Photo: Michał Szlaga

Dorota Kolak as Hecuba especially used the black plastic to great effect. The dress grounded her in the sand of Troy while simultaneously strangling her with its memories. Kolak balanced Hecuba’s grief with a kind of desperate hope that the Greek invaders would, in the end, show mercy. Cezary Rybiński’s performance as Talthybius complimented this vain hope. He delivered each of his announcements about the women’s fate with a sense of dread, belying the words that gave a sense of honor to pronouncements about which of the victors would take the women as spoils of war. Every time Kolak picked up the dress, it felt as though she was lifting the weight of the world. The other women slipped in and out of the dresses, but when Kolak finally shed this skin, it was a loss of identity so deep that little was left of the Trojan queen.

Any review of this show must take a moment to recognize the horrifically splendid staging of Polyxena’s death. The text gives us the barest bones of her fate, mentioning her death on Achilles’ grave. Euripides doesn’t show us what happens to Polyxena, but Klata takes the audience and all of the Trojan women along to watch her final moments. Again, the sand-covered stage becomes a central character as the fabric of Troy receives Polyxena’s body. Magdalena Gorzelańczyk plays Polyxena’s final moments with a sense of deep honor, but her strength as an actress comes after she falls lifeless to the ground. The Greek army lined up behind her, and one by one, force a bottle into the corpse. What worked so brilliantly in this moment, aside from Gorzelańczyk’s natural and deliberate motion was the double meaning of having the bottle actually being rammed into the sand of Troy. The Greek invaders don’t care about the women, their fate, or even the sacrifice to the gods that Polyxena is supposed to represent. The only thing they care about is the complete dominance over Troy. It’s in this moment that Hecuba lets go of any hope. She can see what the Greeks want. There is no escape.

Neoptolemus (Michał Jaros) before the death of Polyxena. Photo: Michał Szlaga

The Greek army stands in sharp contrast to these grieving women. They initially appear as a faceless gang in exaggerated paper masks, their urban-inspired streetwear fitting loosely over armor with exaggerated muscles. The characters gradually shed their masks and garments, stripping down not just to bare skin but to bare muscle and bone. These characters force us to face an uncomfortable truth about war: the victors can begin to draw strength from the violence and desecration of the enemy, losing a piece of their humanity in the process. Klata’s vision emphasizes that the total annihilation of war is always far too close, and while no one—not even the gods—can save the losers, the witnesses must wrestle with how they will respond to the atrocities.

The end of performance is where the true strength of the performance lies. As we have stood as witnesses to Troy’s destruction, a numbness sets in, a weariness with seeing the dresses of the women transform into body bags. One by one, the Trojan women leave the stage, their fate as slaves all that awaits them. Cassandra is left alone, not yet on her way to Clytemnestra’s revenge. She begins to dance as trance music reaches unreasonable levels. The hypnotic music, the volume and her movement hypnotize the audience. Her ethereal white dress, which throughout the play has remained mid-thigh, rises with her to reveal her naked body underneath. It is pure, feminine rage. Cassandra, the maligned prophet whom no one believes, lets every atom of anger, disappointment and hopelessness erupt in her movement. The dancing continues for what seems an eternity, the audience sitting mutely in horror as the movement gradually wears Cassandra down. The lights and sound suddenly cut out, leaving the audience with the dizzying sense of being saved. We, the audience, are the survivors of Troy. 

*Alicia Corts, PhD, is the former director of the theatre program at Saint Leo University and associate dean of Carson-Newman University, both in the United States. An accomplished director and media designer, she has worked both nationally and internationally. An active researcher, Dr. Corts is primarily interested in performance in virtual spaces, specifically how identity and gender issues are regulated by online performance spaces. She is also one of the primary investigators on the Kutiyattam Project, an effort to bring the experience of this ancient Indian performance form into virtual reality.

Copyright © 2023 Alicia Corts
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