History was made on Sunday 17 November 2019 in Nicosia, Cyprus. The story of the fall of Troy was heard in the National Theatre entirely in the voices of women. The ten-hour staged reading of a Greek translation of Natalie Haynes’ powerful novel A Thousand Ships, translated, directed and stage-managed by an all-female team, led by my own former PhD student Magdalena Zira and Athenetta Kasiou, was sold out. Women claimed this ancient story decisively for themselves.
Over the centuries, many women have been involved with translating, adapting and performing Homer’s Odyssey, regarded as somehow lighter, less profound and more domestically focussed than the Iliad. A very few brave women have discussed, translated and adapted the Iliad, despite its heavy emphasis on testosterone-driven conflict. A friend and former student of mine named Lynn Kozak performed the entire Iliad in a Montreal bar while pregnant.
But Sunday’s collective act of taking all power over the Troy narrative away from a male bardic narrator and his dominantly male agents/speakers was breathtakingly radical. Haynes’ novel scours other ancient sources to fill out her beautifully drawn female characters.
We hear the Muse’s frustration with Homer’s androcentric focus. We hear from women who were killed before and during the war (Iphigenia, Polyxena, Creusa). We hear from women whose entire families were butchered yet who must cope with being sexually coerced by the conquerors. We hear from the Amazon Penthesilea, the nymph Oenone, the goddess Gaia, several widows, bereaved mothers, and Penelope, stranded in Ithaca for twenty years with a child, an ageing father-in-law, and a hundred unwanted male squatters.
The effect, when delivered by expert women actors (the standout was Nede Antoniades’ blistering, witty Penelope), was that of a grand tragic oratorio. It retained all the stately grandeur and heartrending humanity of Homer’s poem, but opened up a whole world of female suffering (and child suffering), courage and resilience. This made the ghastly consequences of the Trojan War seem even more universally significant.
The emotional electricity in the beautifully restored old auditorium was palpable. The event was epic in every sense of the term. I was thrilled to be present and so high by the conclusion that I sang Flower of Scotland rather too loudly with some victorious Scottish football fans (female of course) in a taverna later. Because The Night, like Homeric Epic, belongs to Women too.