Theatre in Wales

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At Company of Sirens

Company of Sirens- Troyanne , Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, , October 15, 2013
At Company of Sirens by Company of Sirens- Troyanne ‘Sing me, Muse, a tale of Troy, a funeral dirge... For now will I uplift for Troy a piteous chant,’ (The Trojan Women)

Troyanne is, in part, a reworking of Euripides’ tragedy, capturing the same tone of angry desolation and loss that permeates The Trojan Women. Ian Rowlands uses the motifs and structure of that play, however, to explore different, contemporary concerns (most particularly, a gun-obsessed culture and religious faith). The driving force throughout Troyanne is the ferocious grief and outrage of the central character, Hannah (played with great intensity and subtlety by Caroline Bunce), echoing the grieving characters and chorus of The Trojan Women.

In Ian Rowlands’ play, ancient Hellenistic Troy is replaced by Troy, Ohio; Zeus by the Christian God; the seemingly benign Trojan Horse, brought by unsuspecting Trojans into the city, by the new sporting gun brought into Hannah’s home by her son, a surviving veteran of the Iraq War. Mirroring the carnage and devastation caused by the Trojan Horse, this gun destroys Hannah’s family through her own husband’s casual carelessness.

The contemporary themes of Rowlands’ reinterpretation come from the playwright’s own research: accounts of real gun-deaths from widows and bereaved mothers in the actual town of Troy, Ohio. Drawn from these accounts, the deaths in Troyanne are seen to be even more pointless than those of the original Trojans.

Attempting to comfort Hannah is Tory (excellently played by Rebecca Knowles), who has used the certainty of her Christian faith to help her through her own personal grief. She tries to share this faith with Hannah but the senseless destruction of her family has convinced Hannah that Tory’s vision of a loving God is an empty fantasy. There is no relief in this production from the overwhelming mood of accumulating tragedy and disillusion. Even the intrusion into the women’s grief by a clumsy police officer (from Athens, also in Ohio) serves only to arouse hostility and conflict. He will later become the bearer of more bad news.

Such an approach to the topic has the potential to lapse into melodrama or boredom but the clash of values and the subtle repetitions and rhythms of the blank verse dialogue give the piece a relentless quality that is skilfully brought to life by director Chris Durnall in a compelling production. Durnall has chosen to begin the play with the first gunshot and the women’s shocked reaction. Whilst not in the original script, this gunshot makes for a highly effective opening, providing a brief, wordless prologue to the play.

The starkly minimal set – the yard outside Hannah’s home indicated by a large wooden swing above a stage covered in loose bare earth and a single tree stump – suits the mood perfectly, as do the eerie recurring snatches of song by a distant crooner. Caroline Bunce’s exceptional performance as Hannah stands out but the whole cast is excellent (Rebecca Knowles as Tory, Dick Bradnum as the police officer and Jannah Warlow as Hannah’s bereaved and traumatised daughter-in-law).

Whilst Troyanne provides an intense, memorable theatrical experience in its own right, it was actually written as part of a larger whole, a play within another play that is being developed by Ian Rowlands and The Lark Centre in New York). This larger play explores the theatrical culture of “reading hell” that many new plays struggle to escape from, into full production. We will witness the actors and director between scenes, reacting to the play and each other in a fictional rehearsed reading of Troyanne. With its bleak relentless tone and seriousness, one can imagine the great potential for contrasting humour, irony and irreverence in the dramatized rehearsals. On the basis of this production, Troyanne deserves a longer run, either as part of the larger play or as a complete play in its own right.

Reviewed by: Tim Rhys

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