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Women Of Troy
Published on Sunday, 17 August 2008

Can we trust reviewers when they so often disagree?  We've all seen it - one gives a show two stars, the other gives it four; something must surely be wrong.  It's easy to explain, of course, if they went on different nights: it really could be a triumph one day and a shambles on the other.  But what would happen if we sent two reviewers to the very same performance of a show?

There was only one way to find out.  And for our unusual experiment, we chose an unusual play: Belt Up Theatre Company's new adaptation of a Greek classic, Women Of Troy.  FringeGuru's Susannah Radford and Richard Stamp were both in the room - and we promise, when they scored and wrote up their reviews, we allowed no conferring.

Written by Susannah Radford 

Four stars

GOING TO SEE A PLAY is an obvious process.  You generally expect to buy your tickets, go to the theatre and sit down in your seat... at which point the play begins.

Yet last night I was blindfolded, "abducted" and taken into a dark room with heavy curtains, aware of torch-light being shone around but quite at odds of what to do next.  I spent probably the first third of Women Of Troy blindfolded and standing, uncertain of what to do and quite concerned that I was in the way.

It parallels to a small degree the experience of the Trojan women onstage.  Out of the dim light, I can make out the shadowed forms of women huddled on the ground.  We're part of the show; we are the women captives being taken hostage as the spoils of war.  I'm in The Red Room, one of the C Venues run solely by the Belt Up Theatre Company, to see their exciting performance of Women Of Troy.

Through the darkness, as the voices rise, I suddenly recognise the characters speaking; the names I've only heard in passing now take centre stage.  They are the Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra and Helen of my dim memory, the women who've played second string to their more heroic men; this is a 'her-story'. 

And it's every bit as interesting as the hero's journey.  Adapted from the play by Euripides, it tells the story of the women of Troy after its fall and destruction.  As power and family are ripped from these women, they are left fighting over the scraps of their dignity and pride.

It's a commentary on war for sure, but what is really intriguing is how the women war at a personal level - trying to outdo each other in their suffering, simultaneously belying their general powerlessness at the hands of the Greeks.

Though there are some stunning images, it's the soundscape that assumes a greater focus in Women Of Troy; with the visuals stripped away, you have to listen all the more.  At times the impact was lessened by excessive shouting, but the actors who played Menelaus and Hecuba explored their vocal ranges to a good effect.  The low hum of song throughout was really effective in directing mood and tone.

More could be done to build the visual images and bring the play alive on that level; Menelaus' promise of revenge on Helen's face is truly gruesome.

This production of Women Of Troy is a claustrophobic experience, but one that I would recommend.  It's the sort of theatrical event the Fringe celebrates.  Belt Up certainly are a company to watch; I hope they continue to develop this show, as it could be even greater.  But as it stands, it's a fascinating evening of theatre, not to be missed.


Written by Richard Stamp 

Four stars

SHUT UP.  SIT THERE.  Turn your phones off or there'll be Hell to pay; an Ancient Greek soldier barks orders at us as we're marched into C Central.  Males and females are separated, the latter blindfolded; and the lights are out.  For this is a play about a beaten and subjugated people - the Women of Troy.

You may know all about the classic text by Euripides; but in case you're as ill-educated as I am, here's a hasty gallop through the back-story.  Paris of Troy has abducted the beautiful Helen from under the nose of Menelaus, her Spartan husband.  He, in revenge, has launched his thousand ships, and besieged the walled citadel of Troy for an eventful ten years.  We join the action at the very end; the wooden horse has trotted out, the Greeks have got inside the impregnable walls and mighty Troy's been sacked and plundered.  Now, in a shattered wing of the palace, the victors have come to claim the Trojan royal women as their final prize.

But they've found, it seems, that the lecky's run out, and they've no Trojan coins to feed the meter.  For there's one big gimmick which makes or breaks this play: it's performed entirely in the dark.

At first, with the dialogue delivered in complete blackness, I was sharpening my pencil for a scathing review - asking why they hadn't just done it on the radio.  But I should have been more patient.  As the actors move around the audience, seated and standing in whatever space they can find, torches slowly come into play.  Like tiny spotlights, they pick out an expression here, a gesture there; or just occasionally, they all turn on at once in a startling visual cacophony.  It genuinely does heighten your senses and your awareness of the subtleties of the performances around you.

But the test of any play-with-a-gimmick is whether it would stand up without it; and this one bears that inspection with ease.  The brand-new adaptation splits into three vignettes, albeit linked by ice-cool Hecuba, the ever-present widow queen.  First comes Cassandra, who can see the future but is cursed never to be believed; I found her wild-eyed madness a touch too full-on, but she delivered her blood-curdling lines with spine-tingling relish, turning my stomach not through disgust but with the sheer vividness of the horror they portrayed.

Next Menelaus pulls the same trick, with his grotesque threats of physical disfigurement dominating the kangaroo-court trial of Helen.  She's the outsider of the Trojan crowd - and predictably, the other women turn on her as they lament the fall of the city.  Then at the very end comes a short, truly shocking, understated third scene, which will break the heart of anyone who's ever held a baby - anybody's baby - in their arms.

The acting was, on the whole, first-class, and despite my initial scepticism the darkness did work well.  But I still left with the uneasy feeling that something didn't quite add up; that they'd maybe gone for one stunt too many.  Who were we, the audience?  Why were we eavesdropping on these private moments in the palace's royal wing?  The play's dramatic opening hammered down the fourth wall and invited us to ask these questions - yet it never really got round to answering them.  But this is, still, another winner from the impressive Belt Up company... and I'm hoping I can take in even more of what they've brought to Edinburgh this Fringe.

After reading Susannah's review, Richard says:  "In many ways our experiment is reassuring; we both gave the show the same number of stars and, I think, for broadly the same reasons.  But we didn't completely agree - Susannah "got" the abduction scene in a way I just didn't, while I enjoyed the light as much as I did the soundscape.  In the end, it bears out what we've always said... that it's worth checking more than one review to piece together a balanced picture."

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