Les Danai'des is a Greek play performed in French by over 100 Romanians. As Silviu Purcarcte brings his company back to Glasgow, Neil Cooper makes him explain. In English.
Size might not be everything. but it can certainly contribute to esteem. Romanian theatre director Silviu Purcarcte‘s fondness for unwieldy classical texts. and his unﬂinching devotion to presenting them on an authentically grand scale have made for some thrilling visual spectacle derived — mercifully - from human resources rather than created by pumping up the venue‘s electric bill with scene-stealing hi-tech trickery.
Pur'carete‘s previous visits to Glasgow with Phaedra. Dct'unmvm 646. and The Tempest -« all at the behest of former Tramway director Neil Wallace‘s international production company — have established a big reputation in Scotland. as well as expanding in scope and scale with each production. Now Purcarcte appears to have outgrown even Tramway: his new work. Les [)mml'des. is to be staged in the Old Fruitmarket. Derived from Aeschylus's The .S'upp/imus. the tnost complete part of the ancient Greek tragedian‘s earliest trilogy. the play tells how the 50 daughters of Danaos are forced to marry their 50 Egyptian cousins. and how all but one of the daughters kill their husbands on their wedding night. All this is watched over by a sextet of cynical gods. who spout woven-in Aristotelian quotes about tragedy before moving the action to its conclusion.
As he explains in his hotel after a performance at Paris's mammoth La Villette complex. Purcarcte uses this approach to add an ironic element to proceedings. with the deities criticising and carping over fundamental human philosophies from their lofty positions. It forms part of his liberal ‘reconstruction‘ of the text. which mixes and matches fragments and verses from what‘s left of the other two parts of the trilogy to create a full epic myth. Purcarcte sees the result as ‘a mosaic. a completely fantasist construction for performance only.’ He shrugs. ‘It has no scientific value.‘
While steering clear of any overt political reading of the piece. Purcarcte sees Aeschylus‘s trilogy (which may or may not have been written at the very dawn of dramaturgy) as being about Europe. ‘The myths are based on the founding ofGreek civilisation. and in turn European civilisation. as the population of one nation comes to another territory and gives birth to a new people.‘ he explains.
Quite simply. Les Dunui'des is a marvel of theatrical invention. which puts all 50 daughters onstage alongside their testosterone-infused spouses. The
production. which comes all too briefly lo Britain after its French dates (and will require considerable re~staging due to the Old Fruitmarket‘s"surallness') displays a wonderfully formal precision. It is almost orchestral. its en rnasse groupings forming shapes akin to a Roman military maneouvre. 'or -- as the daughters bathe for their wedding night -- a minimalist Busby Berkeley routine. followed by a mass honeymoon/murder.
The level of theatrical imagination is astonishing. from the opening moments »- a huge blue cube moving backwards. revealing row on row of wooden boxes which turn out to contain Les Dana'r'dcs themselves ~ to the (lwmuwnwrl. a startling evocation ofempires toppling from the very top of the Chain of Being. In between. the boxes become barricades. coffins. and symbolic baggage of the daughters‘ new masters.
The imagery on display - at once simple and pure - suggests Purcarete is creating a new visual language, a theatrical Esperanto which transcends national borders.
while the other imagery on display — at once simple and pure ~ suggests Purcarete is creating a new visual language. a theatrical Esperanto. which transcends national borders. and should prove the English surtitles which accompany the Glasgow performances largely unnecessary.
Les [)(muiklt’s is performed in French by a Romanian cast of student and non-professional performers. an approach to language which is central to Purcarcte's strategy. ‘From the very beginning it was intended to be shown in different countries. and spoken in a “foreign” language.‘ he says (in English). ‘lfl was doing it with French actors. for instance. I would have them perform it in a language other than French.‘
Signiﬁcantly. he finds it difficult to articulate this idea. but you catch the drift from his silent gesturing
les Danaides: a marvel of theatrlcal Invention
as he wrestles with another tongue. ‘I don‘t know how to explain it.‘ he continues. ‘I just feel it. Speaking your own language has a special connection with your mind. If you speak another language. you might know what you're saying. but there is a wall between the two levels of what is inside and what is being said. Now that we are living in a world where nationalities are mixing. this becomes a paradox. I can sit here and try and say something to you which of course I want you to understand. but because of language. you might not.‘
Like the man said. don't speak it. feel it. Les Drumi'des. Silvia Purcarcte Company. Old I’ruilmurkct. Glasgow. Sat [2 Oct/Sun I3 Oct.
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Sllvlu Purcarcte: struggllng to communlcato
The List 4-17 Oct 1996 53