In the early nineteenth century Heinrich von Kleist wrote a play that inverted the killing of Amazon queen Penthesilea by Greek hero Achilles before the walls of Troy. This production of that play is adapted by director Eva Mann from a modern translation by Joel Agee which is bold, passionate and visceral in its language.
The adaptation creates a concise, driven production in this play fraught with sexual tension, obsession, dramatic confusion and, literally, the battle of the sexes. Penthesilea leads her Amazon women warriors against the Greeks attacking Troy, but her sights are set on Achilles, whom she has fixated upon. Achilles is likewise enthralled and there ensue games of loving deceit as well as struggles for personal power, ending in a climax of blood, madness and horror.
For such a dramatic piece it is only right that Playades Theatre Company attack the text with strong energy and commitment, and the company displays physical and vocal dexterity. Sound is created through pan pipes and body parts on floor and walls, and the fiendish cries of the women, sometimes ululating, are hair-raising. Movement sections illustrate internal tales and at first punctuate, ritualistically, the words and intentions of the warrior queen. For the most part, this physicalisation of the ancient world works very well, though at times the actions are not fully connected to emotionally by a couple of the players.
For all the commitment from performers, a few do not truly engage with the language either, playing an attitude in a surface manner rather than fully embodying a character’s thoughts and feelings. In this production, the women are more fully connected overall, though Tim Carey-Jones as Achilles puts in a strong performance. Even he, though, and Rayyah McCaul as Penthesilea, are sometimes given to the driving direction of forcing tension and opposition on even tender moments, occasionally with more grimacing than anything else.
That strained push to show warring passions and mounting madness is highlighted by lack of connection, when physicality or forced emotion overcomes exposition, clear narrative and genuine feeling. For the most part, though, both symbolically shown violence and building passions are well presented, with Cindy-Jane Armbruster as Asteria showing clear and connected story-telling ability, Maria Alexe’s High Priestess displaying fine movement and choral qualities and McCaul using her sometimes intriguing voice to grip attention, even if she can be somewhat distanced from true passion and pathos while she seems focused on presentation.
The minimalist staging, with a white screen that is occasionally put to silhouette use and allows a couple of dramatic entrances, works well in a small space and costumes clearly denote a sense of period and of warriors, both male and female.
Playades presents an intriguing and fundamentally shocking story with vigour, commitment and a real sense of the heightened states of Greek legends and, if not every element succeeds in its ambition, Penthesilea is a visually and aurally strong piece, likely to linger on a fair while after its last dramatic sight and sound has faded.