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Voix de femmes à la scène, à l'écran

Nicole Vigouroux-Frey

II. Voix du spectacle vivant

“Searching for sexuality beyond Gender Stereotype in Euripides” The Women of Troy

Peter Lichtenfels

Texte intégral

1As a contemporary director who is also a man, working on a production of The Women of Troy by Euripides posed three immediate issues: The play is about women with a large cast of female characters; it is a play from the distant past; and the production was being acted by young people in their early 20s. What the director has to avoid with every issue is the imposition of conventions that would limit the significance of the play, and particularly the imposition of gender stereotypes that would simply reinforce concepts of sexuality that we have already got. We cannot know about the appropriateness of body, sexuality and gender for the ancient Greeks, but we have to create structures to realise the potential in these areas for the present audience. This means finding a way to inhabit a text whose formal poetics is far from “naturel” in convention, finding a way to realise the text through the actor’s bodies so that the significance for the present comes out of addressing the needs of the text in an immediate and physical manner. The discussion that follows is an account of how we attempted to do this by working through techniques of mask to decentre the conventional connections between the text and the actor's voice and body.

2The Women of Troy takes place on the beach between the Trojan city wall and the sea, two days after the sacking of Troy by the Greeks and the murder of all the Trojan men. The women are on the beach waiting to be shipped to Greece after they have been allocated to individual members of the Greek army, and what they are trying to do is to make sense of, to understand their new condition This is acondition – of picking up the pieces, dealing with the debris of war – that has faced women throughout recorded history. In recent times one only has to think of the Argentinian women in search of the disappeared, or the systematic raping of women in the Bosnian conflict.

3One of the problems of portraying a Greek play about women, today, is that there are few records of women’s voices from the time with the exception of Sappho and that our knowledge and understanding of women are filtered through men's voices. Secondly, we can piece together by looking at legal texts and social accounts how a woman in 4th century BC Athens lived, which was that they took no active political or public life. Women belonging to the families of Athenian citizens had lives which were radically different from the lives of slave women and were cloistered from the age of about 14; all their life was in the home. When you compare that kind of life to the great roles that the Greek plays offer about women such as Medea, Helen of Troy, Antigone, Electra, there’s an enormous disjunction. Thirdy, the dramatists wrote plays based on the Iliad, so all the tragic plays were based on events that were held to have taken place 6 centuries before. It’s like saying that all the plays on our stage be based on Chaucer. The Greeks playwrights had an enormous fascination with women, since the majority of extant plays are named after them, yet the roles were played by men, and portrayed women behaving in ways that would not be acceptable to the society of the playwright or audience.

4We also know very little about how the chorus worked, and in our production we worked with 12 women and 2 men of around 20 years old. Now, Hecuba is supposed to be 60 years old, and there was the problem of how to comprehend her experience as a victim of war when you're a young middle-class English woman. The problem focuses on an important element of the actor's craft: that the funda-mental tool that the actors have in a production is their body, which includes their mind, their sexuality, and their voice. It is their only truth, the only way they have to understand and locate what the plays does. Following from this is a second difficult area, that the occidental tradition of thinking about the self and meaning has to ask how to bring these together again. Stanislavski is a good example of a response at the core of occidental theatre; his approach is based on the individual asking “what do I want?” But a Greek play based on a chorus in-vestigates the self in a non-occidental way, and asks “What do we want?” You have to tell the story as a group, empty your individuality, and build meaning through a choric sharing of language, of rhythm and of space.

5We entered into 8 hours of rehearsal a day for 8 weeks, doing 6 hours of exercices and 2 hours of looking at the text. And what we addressed was the question: If you can’t be an individually defined character, how do you make the word powerful, get the word to relate to the other people on stage, and go beyond mere personality? To answer this need, we worked on mask techniques and related tasks for making a commitment to the word through the body.

6Mask technique allows a group of actors to agree on a focus for choric work: the mask locates a function for the words of the text as speaking for the audience, speaking for the chorus or pushing the plot forword. The actors discuss and analyse the text in order to agree on an understanding of what is it doing, and what the walls and freedoms of its meaning are, so that they can then work around them. In this way the individual actor can function within a collective identity. But the difficulty then becomes: How to resist the normative, habitual representation of that identity? Through mask the face is immobilised into an agreed pattern which eradicates socially-recognised expression and passes action into the body. For example the “virgin” mask has as its centre of balance the cheek-bone which says “I am curious”; the huntress mask focuses on the heart which says “I can do that”. The fixing of the elements of mask releases word and action into the actor’s body so the actor can no longer depend on facial expression. Indeed the masks in performance also open up the audience to questions because the actors’ facial gestures do not convery conventional meaning, they do not give answers.

7Added to the immobilisation of facial expression are a series of tasks to do with agreed mask elements, voice, body and space. The action of any one task is to keep the actor searching for ways of working on the building of the choric identity. Tasks related to mask elements could include: gait, wig, feet and so on. The moment the actors feel comfortable with one element they have to set themselves another task, so that they can decentre their habitual control over the presentation. The tasks leave no chance to the individual to centre their actions on themselves, and insist on continual working within the collective body of the chorus.

8One task involved the voice in using chakras. People usually speak from the chest and mouth, only partially engaging with the words, but the concept of the chakras works like a metaphor for a full physical engagement of the body with the word. The word has to begin to move at the solar plexus, through the diaphrahm, through the heart, and only then through the chest and through the head to gain a physical solidity. In this way the actor can begin to shape the meaning of the text through the body’s realisation of its rhythm, its colour, its weight.

9Another way of making the body commit to the word was to create real work for the actors on stage like using a thyrsis or staff, or exploring ways of walking. Pushing the body to the edge of balance became very important, and we used physically demanding exercices that encouraged us to try to makes stillness itself dynamic, create a tension of movement out of stillness as if the body could spring forward at any moment into voice or action. Central to the work was the action of coiling, a cork-screw movement that posed a physical task, and the pressure or effort of answering it changed the quality of the actors' voices, created rhythmic tension, and pushed one moment of balance into a new position.

10Another area we explored was to do with the theatrical space. There was no blocking of the play, so every performance was different. We used a Kabuki-type stage which was 4 metres deep and 18 metres wide, with a hanamichi or long catwalk to one side. This prevents perspective and constructs a visual impression rather like a pre-Renaissance painting. Lacking the depth made us ask how we could tell a story in a new way by using height and width alone; it also asked the audience to make choices about whether or not actions were significant; for example, whether to follow actors moving off the stage via the hanamichi, or to move on the new developments already unfolding on the main stage.

11These elements of voice, tension and balance, mask and space, combined so that the chorus became radically collective in its actions. Members of the chorus never knew what pitch they would take, what rhythm or when the rhythm would stop or change, when there would be a collective breath, or what colour ing – how bright, quiet, murmured – would be taken. There was no way of predicting from performance what kind of physical closeness, body contact, or speed of movement would occur, nor of predicting whether the chorus would clump together or spread over the entire stage.

12There was always agreement about how the chorus would move through mask to the edge of balance; yet the work on tasks of balance that pushed an actor’s body to the edge of control, left the individual with little control over the language or movement, except that the extensive preparation and labour in rehearsal had formed the sinews or the fabric for the action. The words came out of the moment; and similarly, every performance would engage the chorus in a different agreement, in the moment, of who was to lead a particular movement or stage action. It was only the enormous labour or work on the tasks in rehearsal which allowed their group actions to cohere through mask and tell the play through the collective physicality of choric voice and movement.

13Constructing a chorus that is radically collective in this way, building a sense of unstructured but dense potential for action, generates an enormously amplified feeling of power. The decentering of limits over control, of the idea of the individual’s ability to define meaning, had an impact on other individual characterisations in the play which were taken by specific members of the chorus. It also had an impact on that way that these women in the Greek play were being portrayed as women, and an impact on the audience – particularly on the way a contemporary audience perceives concepts of gender and sexuality. While a central problem of the production was to get beyond gender stereotype toward women’s sexualities that made sense in terms of a 2300 year-old play, the production necessarily also went beyond gender stereotype to offer versions of women’s sexuality that could make sense to an audience of today.

14Relocating the sexuality of the characters through group work on the way the body moved the words moved the body, built a choric identity that worked as a counterpoint to the individual characterisations of the play and called conventional interpretations into question. One example of this work was in the effect of the mixed-gender chorus. In the original Greek performances the women's roles would have been played by men. The men in this production also participated in the “women’s” chorus. We found that the work we did on the body and voice decentred contemporary responses to sexuality. Many people in the audience commented on how the men in the chorus were not perceived as having a conventional masculine identity, yet their presence and particularly the timbre of their voices also decentred the expected image of feminine identity constructed by this chorus of “women”.

15Another decentering was in the classic split in the western media between the gender stereotypes of mother and mistress, madonna and whore, because these stereotypes cannot answer the power of a woman’s position held by Hecuba the tribal widow, or Cassandra the erotic ecstatic. Just as interesting, the potential for contemporary cliche in the wife-and-mother Andromache was displaced, leaving her tragedy refreshed and deeply disturbing. The decentring a chieved through the choric mask and task-related work was my own way of dealing with the three issues that faced me when we started work on the play, yet it resulted in a performance that involved everyone in the production, including the audience, in a radical questioning of current responses to gender stereotype and sexuality.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1994

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