How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow!

Imagine someone writing a play based on the Book of Lamentations. Set just after the fall of Jerusalem, among the widows of the city, the Babylonian captors just finishing off the process of burning the city and sending the survivors off into slavery.

That, basically, is The Trojan Women by Euripides, now playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. (For my review of Romeo and Juliet, see here). It is an opportunity to spend ninety minutes listening to the speech of unspeakable misery.

Don’t miss the opportunity.

I never have been able to understand how Euripides, presumably on the “strength” of poor readings of Medea and The Bacchae, came to be known as a great misogynist. I’ve already compared The Trojan Women to Lamentations; I could as well have said that, with slight modifications, it could be mistaken for the greatest work by Ntozake Shange. I’ve never met a misogynist who had the slightest interest in understanding women, and I’ve never met a man, misogynist, philogynist, or agnogynist, with a tenth the interest in understanding women that Euripides had.

The play is set after the fall of Troy. Hector is dead. Priam is dead. Paris is dead. The city is sacked and the women wait in tents outside the walls for their new masters to parcel them out amongst themselves as slaves. Before meeting the women, we open with Poseidon’s impotent fury at the loss of his city, and his surprise at Athena’s sudden reversal of sympathy and determination to visit revenge upon the Greeks whom she had only just led to triumph. These gods depart, and we are left with the women. Hecuba, Queen of Troy, stirs to bemoan her fate – no sons, no husband, no city – and learns soon enough that so long as she can say “this is the worst” the worst is yet to come.

It’s not the way one normally chooses to spend an evening, listening to the lamentation of women. Conan accounted it the greatest delight, but he spoke specifically of the lamentation of women whose husbands he had slain, and anyhow he was a barbarian. The one prior production of The Trojan Women I had seen was at the Abbey in Dublin in 1993, a profoundly alienating production of a lacerating anti-male version of the text; it did not move me, nor leave me moved to have much regard for the play. I went to see this production for two reasons: Martha Henry was playing Hecuba, and Marti Maraden was directing. If you could see my eyes as I exited the theatre, you would know these proved to be very good reasons indeed.

The play, so seemingly static in description, is full of interest, full of movement. Cassandra’s mad dance as she learns she is to be Agammemnon’s concubine is riveting, and Hecuba’s response fruitfully ambiguous – she is genuinely shocked that the Greeks would violate a dedicated virgin, and bring down upon themselves the wrath of her divine patron, but she herself shows no sign, even now, of believing her daughter’s prophecies. Her prosecutorial confrontation with Helen (and with Menelaus, whom she does not trust to carry out his own given sentence) is electric, and generates its own ambiguous reaction – it is the easiest thing in the world to hate Helen, who is an utterly unrepentant serpent; but how do we feel about Hecuba’s apparently sincere thirst for retributive justice on Helen’s head at the hand of her estranged Spartan husband? Justice her death would be, but what satisfaction could there be for Hecuba in seeing Menelaus triumph?

And Andromache, Hector’s widow, gives a marvelous speech about her own fate anchored on a classic Euripidean irony. She was the perfect wife to Hector, the exemplar of all the wifely virtues, and famous for it. So famous, that her virtues reached the ear of Achilles’ son, who chose her to be his concubine. Her virtues have been her undoing: were she less of a good wife to Hector, she might have been able to better honor his memory than by cohabiting with his murderer’s son; and if she continues to manifest those virtues, and plays the good wife to her new husband, she makes a mockery of every observance of duty she made in Hector’s house. This is not a simple lament after all; Euripides is using extremity to reveal unpleasant ironies about his characters and about human relations more generally.

The heart of the play is the moment when Hecuba and Andromache, her daughter-in-law, played with terrible intensity by Seana McKenna, cry out to one another “weep for me,” “no – weep for me!” These were the two leading women of their world, and their every last scrap of hope has been torn from them – literally, in the case of Andromache, as her last surviving child, her son, Astyanax, is wrenched from her arms by Greek soldiers to be tossed to his death from the Trojan battlements, lest he grow to seek revenge on the Greeks who slew his father and sacked his city. The only status left to them is the monumentality of their suffering – and so they compete at that.

With negligible exceptions, the performances were superb. Martha Henry was regal in her rags, every inch a Queen; Seana McKenna was at once able to plumb the depths of maternal pain and to have the intelligence and the horrible detachment to comment on that pain from outside it. Sean Arbuckle was utterly convincing as the “good Greek,” the messenger Talthybius who disclaims any love for his office, says he cannot bear to carry it out, and yet, of course, does so, howsoever evil that office may be. Kelli Fox and Yanna McIntosh were respectively fire and ice as Cassandra and Helen, respective destroyers of the houses of Atreus and Priam. The chorus of women of all ages was used extremely effectively throughout – now a group of dancers performing a funerary rite, now a would-be jury hissing at Helen, now a terrified group of refugees looking to their one-time Queen for the comfort in whatever dregs of authority she retained. The only actor who didn’t quite measure up the night I saw the show was Brad Rudy as Menelaus, who was perfectly correct but who did not encompass the emotional complexity of the other performers. Then again, perhaps Menelaus doesn’t have any such complexity; Hecuba certainly has a dim view of him.

And the young boy who played Astyanax – Hector’s son, the one who gets thrown from the battlements to his death – was horribly affecting in his one scene. His mother reconciled to fate, she sends him from her to the Greek messenger, but half-way to his doom he turns and runs back to her arms. She sends him again, and again he marches half-way to the Greek and turns running back. Talthybius has no stomach for a third try, and has the soldiers pull him forcibly from his mother’s arms. It’s quite a scene to take for anyone who has a child (my son is the same age as the young actor). I checked the program, and this is the boy’s second season; he previously played little Prince Philip in The Dutchess of Malfi. What’s he going to play next year, I wonder – little Macduff? One of the princes in the tower? If his agent doesn’t get him some cheerier parts, this boy is going to need some serious therapy one day.

As for the staging, it was very straightforward. The costumes were mildly creative, with the Greeks (and the gods) in modern military garb, the Trojans in vaguely antique rags; this worked fine, as modern dress on the Trojans would have been confusing but modern dress on the soldiers made their violence more immediate. The costumes of the Poseidon and Menelaus, though, seemed to be parodies of actual military dress uniforms, which is probably not a good thing for such a moving production. The only weak point of the staging, though, was the burning of Troy, which had rather been built up for me beforehand with tales of lavish expense, but which turned out to be a nothing more than a bunch of orange gels.

Stratford has had mixed success with the Greeks, but they have done best with Euripides – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Shakespeare’s affinity with the Greek tragedian with the most sophisticated grasp of human psychology – delivering a very moving Medea in 2000 and what I understand was a spectacular Bacchae in 1993. This production is a worthy companion to those two.

Though I will say, I’d recommend seeing it in the afternoon, so you can do something to take your mind off before day’s end. We saw a matinee performance ourselves, and had tickets to Hamlet that evening. “Oh, good,” I told my wife when she reminded me of this on leaving the theatre. “After that, I could do with a comedy.”