British theatre’s attitude to the classics have undergone a sea-change recently. Long distant now seem the Almeida’s Greek season of 2015, Medea at the National and Electra at the Old Vic in 2014. Instead of renewed artistic interrogation in a fairly conventional mode, the thrust is one of female reclamation.
Last winter, Jermyn Street Theatre delivered a huge digital project in the shape of 15 Heroines, 15 monologues by women writers based on Ovid’s Heroides. The National came back this autumn with Paradise, an all-female company tackling Sophocles’s Philoctetes, as reworked by Kae Tempest. The Rose in Kingston was founded by Peter Hall, but the current offering is a world away from his all-male NT Oresteia of 40 years ago. In The Seven Pomegranate Seeds, just two actresses – Niamh Cusack and Shannon Hayes – bring to life the stories of various women from the plays of Euripides.
The adapter is Irish playwright Colin Teevan, who collaborated with Hall on various Greek projects. It’s a bold but also brisk and breathless affair.
Teevan attempts a hybrid approach that combines a sense of the mythic past with modern references and sensibilities. At its best, it affords a glimpse of a continuum of female suffering and endurance down the ages. But often it feels overwrought: sacrificing the clarity and potency of the original material while too glibly evoking contemporary life, cramming in nods to the January Capitol insurrection, Pierce Brosnan and even BoJo.
The 80-minute piece, directed by Melly Still, is at its strongest at the start. Persephone in Yorkshire describes the abduction of a countryside-roaming, imagination-rich girl; Cusack takes on the voice of her mother but also initially tells the tale too, with a strong pulse of dramatic anguish. There are shades of the Moors Murders as the barefoot actress suggests, with outstretched arms, a bird frantically circling, scouring moorland surfaces for signs of life. But nothing is rammed home. For her part, Hayes catches the horror of being a fearful captive, prey to a monster (Hades in the original).
What follows takes in such curios as a reimagined Alcestis, giving up her liver to keep her VIP-hungry restaurateur husband alive, and a Medea whose abusive hubby – not her – is the child-slayer, with Cusack memorably crashing through a paper-lined backdrop to suggest the violence of that abuse. The scenic approach is fairly sparse, semi-derelict, with a striking motif of towering (though snippable) lines of string, but as we shuttle from one scenario to the next, it’s all too easy to lose the thread, however much the stated through-line is “severed maternal bonds”.
The conclusion – a welcome reunion – appeals to the heart but is also, typically, a bit head-scratching. It’s ostensibly derived from the tale of Persephone’s mother, Demeter. Yet it’s more closely linked to the previous item – Creusa in Shoreditch, with its own story of rape, a resulting birth, and adoption.
“I didn’t understand all of it,” I heard someone say, on exiting. Yes. Something got lost in transposition, it would seem.
Until Nov 20. Tickets: 020 8174 0090; rosetheatre.org