Throughout history, women have been subjected to violence and unfair treatment. They’ve been victims of war and forced displacement, political conflict, physical mutilation and genocide. They have suffered at the hands of sadists, and of those who believe that women are weak and helpless.
Sadly, women have yet to fully break free from these afflictions. Despite all our modernity and the technological advancements that human beings have achieved in recent decades, women somehow remain the victims of injustice.
This sad reality is what drives La MaMa’s The Trojan Women Project team to tour the globe raising awareness of the way that sexism continues to hinder women’s growth.
Taking part in this project, Cambodia’s Amrita Performing Arts organisation recently collaborated with La MaMa to stage a powerful performance that transcended ordinary theatre.
A Story Beyond Words
Minutes after sunset on February 17, more than a dozen actors, clad mostly in white and grey, walked from the gates of the Department of Performing Arts to the open grounds beyond. They made a collective sound that started as a mere hum, then turned into rhythmic screams. The actors were singing in a language incomprehensible to the human mind.
A woman was seen being taken by men and dragged up a flight of stairs. Despite the rope around her neck, she resisted strongly. Gathered below, a group of women prayed and sang for the abducted woman on the balcony. Their words did not seem to come from the language of any known race or nation, but their horrified and worried faces were enough to convey their plight. The woman on the balcony died.
The actors moved to the back of the department’s red building. The audience, initially confused by this 360-degree performance area, soon caught on and moved with them.
At the back, a woman was seen putting a crown on her child. But the celebration ended abruptly as men from another tribe took the child away. The mother sang her heart out, still in those strange words, begging for the child’s freedom. Her pleas went unheeded.
In another scene just a couple of meters from where the mother cried for her lost child, a woman was raped. The perpetrators mocked her efforts to resist. She was an innocent victim of violence, but she was persecuted like a sinner.
As the performance returned to the open grounds in front of the red building, women were dragged into performing forced labour, chained like animals and made to carry heavy sacks. They begged for their liberty and urged their captors to stop inflicting pain on them, knowing full well they were bound to die.
But the women, determined to fight off the men and resist the violence, tried to free themselves. They possessed an almost tangible passion to be liberated, to give themselves the freedom they knew was their right. They came together on the stairs and, with a flaming torch in hand, they sang to let the world hear their voices.
“The Trojan Women” is a tragedy created by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides, and was first performed during the Peloponnesian War nearly 2,500 years ago. The La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a New York-based organisation, reinterpreted the play in 1974 in a version produced by Ellen Stewart.
This version of the play has been staged in over 30 years [countries?] for over four decades. The creative team behind The Trojan Women knew that Euripides’ play still resonates to the present day – in particular, with the violence that continues to be committed against women everywhere, all the time.
The team created a play that goes beyond any language and culture. The texts used in the play are a combination of Greek, Nahuatl, Latin and Navajo – forming a language that is not specific to any place or era.
According to project director Onni Johnson, the play uses ancient languages, songs and movements to convey messages to the audience. Because the words are not understandable, the audience members are forced to reflect and create meanings for themselves.
“This performance empowers the audience. They are allowed to make their own interpretation and understanding of what they see and hear. We don’t use any specific modern language. The actors use the language of humanity,” Ms Johnson said.
She added that La MaMa E.T.C. chose Cambodia as one of their locations in which to stage the play because of the country’s tragic history.
“This story is in newspapers today, in newspapers yesterday and in newspapers tomorrow. These stories are going on everywhere. People can find connections to this,” she said, noting that the production was designed in such a way to force the audience to follow the performers around the building. This was done in order to involve them in the performance.
Amrita Performing Arts artistic director Chey Chankethya, who played a significant role in bringing the play to life in this country, said The Trojan Women Cambodia project was based on three elements: values, experimentation and sharing.
“We all came up with ideas to do this or that to put on a good performance for locals and foreigners in Cambodia. We just want to share what we have learned during the entire production because we all have common stories here. We can relate to each other,” Ms Chankethya said.
The all-Cambodian cast, she said, was given just a few weeks to rehearse and internalise their characters. But their passion for the performing arts and delivering a significant message to their audience erased any doubts they may have had about the the possible outcome of a play of this sort, which is unfamiliar territory for local audiences.
Aside from the local cast, Khmer traditional instruments were also played live at the side of the performance area. Traditional drum, srolai, roneat, flute and cymbal to add artistic means to interpret the message of the play.
After the two-hour play, the actors, directors and production team gave the audience the chance to ask questions and express their perspectives about “The Trojan Women”.
Ms Johnson said, “This is how you connect with the audience. They are involved in the production, in the story. They are not just mere spectators.”