The Seven Pomegranate Seeds review – Euripides tied in knots

A fringed curtain of string hangs from ceiling to floor and stretches across the auditorium, winding around the seats and, at times, around the actors too. This all-encompassing set looks like the industrious spinning of one of Louise Bourgeois’s giant spiders. But its sense of spectacle does not pay off in a production whose theatricality overwhelms its stories.

Directed and designed by Melly Still, Colin Teevan’s play, first performed as a staged reading in 2006, is “the result of a long conversation between Euripides and me” in which he resuscitates the unhappy mothers and lost children of ancient Greek tragedy. A seven-part monologue cycle set in the modern day, it features the notorious – and notoriously wronged – women of Euripidean tragedy: Medea, Phaedra, Hypsipyle, Persephone, Demeter, Alcestis and Creusa. Their stories include rape, kidnap and murder, and centre on maternal pain and loss. But the pathos and intensity in Teevan’s script is lost on the stage, rendered overly stylised and emotionally absent.

Niamh Cusack and Shannon Hayes, who share all the roles, are tasked not only with moving between monologues, one often acting out what the other is narrating and chipping in with dialogue, but also manoeuvring the set as well as traversing a stage that has two upper circles and two plank-like walkways above it.

The actors create a commotion that feels unnecessary and distracts us from their characters’ inner worlds. Cusack and Hayes are so busy manipulating the set, winding string or running in circles that this seems to inhibit them from going deeper into their roles. The performances appear flighty and frantic, as if the actors are running in and out of those, too.

Hayes’s Medea is not a filicidal murderer here but an abused wife, with Cusack, as her abusive partner, acting out his violence on cushions and on a chalk silhouette on the floor. Cusack’s Phaedra is a drunk who tries to batten down her desire for her stepson with alcohol; Hayes plays him wordlessly, flicking through a year 12 course book and pointing out the empty wine bottles unsubtly. Hypsipyle is a teenage childminder gabbling to her friend on the phone and fed up with looking after a rich woman’s baby, whose cries are played out by Cusack rather gratingly as she walks around the stage.

In the story of Alcestis (a wife donating an organ at her peril to a husband whose wrecked liver is a result of too much partying) Cusack impersonates Pierce Brosnan and the whimsy of the piece just does not work.

The comedy feels an awkward fit and the drama quavers between archness and earnestness. Potent moments peep through and point at lost promise, where less could have been more.

  • The Seven Pomegranate Seeds is at the Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames, until 20 November.