Trojan Women in the twenty first century: women in war from Euripides to Syria

Last December, a small group of volunteers organised a production of ‘Trojan Women’ with female Syrian refugees now living in Jordan.  Heather McRobie speaks to two of the organisers about how art speaks to those who have survived conflict, and the significance of ‘Trojan Women’ in a modern context of women’s experiences of war.

Charlotte Eagar Heather McRobie Georgina Paget
19 June 2014

This article was first published on February 21 2014.

Euripides’ ‘Trojan Women’ is one of the most enduring artistic testaments to human suffering in war.  Last December, a small group organised a production of the play with female Syrian refugees now living in Jordan. Charlotte Eagar and Georgina Paget, who were involved in producing the play, discuss their experiences of staging the play, from the practicalities of the production and the use of theatre in healing from trauma, to the importance of bearing witness to the often silenced female experience of war.

Heather McRobie: Firstly, Charlotte, can you tell us a bit about the project and how it began.  Where did the idea come from?  Was the focus on the importance of working with Syrian women?  Or did the idea come from wanting to stage the Euripides play in particular?

Charlotte Eagar: The idea came two different directions. Many years ago, in 1992, I went to Bosnia as a foreign correspondent, straight out of university, and spent all summer interviewing refugees. That autumn, I listened to the Trojan women on the BBC World Service. I'd also studied it at university. I suddenly realised that the stories in the play were the same stories I'd been listening to from the refugees all summer – rape, murder, destruction, exile, loss. That nothing had changed. Then, in April last year, I had a conversation with Oxfam who asked me to think of a project to do with Syrian refugees. My husband [the filmmaker Willy Stirling] and I had just finished workshopping and shooting a mini-soap opera with a slum kids’ amateur drama group in Nairobi. The mini soap was set in the slum the kids lived in, Dandora, on the edge of Nairobi, on the largest rubbish dump in Africa. Because of the similarities with their own situations, the children were able to give very compelling performances. But more importantly, we could see that they were transformed by the experience - they had much more self-confidence, they were able to look at life differently, and it gave them new opportunities.

We wanted to think of a similar thing to do with Syrians – something which would be challenging and empowering for them to do but also, given a similarity to their own situation, mean that there was a chance that it would be artistically very powerful as well. We also realised that if we pulled it off, then the project could be used to draw the rather sluggish international attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, which is turning into a humanitarian catastrophe.

HM: Refugees in Jordan are obviously often in precarious and unstable situations, from problems with obtaining the right to work to the loss of social networks that comes from displacement.  What practical obstacles did the refugee status of the actors pose to rehearsing and staging the play? 

Georgina Paget: There were so many obstacles – but none insurmountable, thankfully! To start with, we decided to work with urban refugees, since although the camps are in no way a great place to be, there is usually at least a sense of community there. We were advised that a project like this was really needed by those scattered, urban refugees who have no community and often fall between the cracks with little or no support network. This meant that finding our cast was initially a challenge, since we were looking for people who were scattered and had no community as such, where we could just go to invite them along. But after some serious legwork outside the UNHCR registering office and even meeting people in their homes for about ten days, once word had got out we had 50 women join the group within two days. Sadly we had to turn away over 100 more who turned up on day 3 who we simply couldn’t fit in the rehearsal room! Over-popularity is a nice problem to have, but we are all hoping that we can run other projects for those 100 odd and others.

Initially most of the women knew only one or two others in the group, and given that – and of course their experiences – building trust was a first obstacle to overcome. But Omar, the director and his team, did a fantastic job facilitating that. By the end of the production the cast had really bonded – they made and ran their own Facebook group, helped each other learn their lines, and said they truly felt like a family. So much so that, as an example, when one of the women in the cast became homeless after the roof blew off her house during the freak snowstorms [in December 2013], one of the other women she’d met through the play invited her and her husband and son to stay with them for as long as they needed to.

The snowstorms were a logistical nightmare, to be honest, and certainly exacerbated some existing issues – like the living situations of the cast – and in the really bad weather the buses we had hired to bring the women to rehearsals couldn’t even make it up the hill to the theatre and everyone had to get out and walk. Some of the women, or their families, were concerned about word of their involvement in the project getting back to Syria and causing problems for any of their family still in the country, so a few did drop out of performing, though some overcame this by wearing a niqab to hide their face.

I’m not sure I’d like to call it a practical obstacle, but even though not all of them had kids, a group of 50 women meant a creche of at least 80 kids. This was undeniable mayhem to begin with at the start (especially since many of the kids were deeply traumatised themselves and many had never socialised outside their own families before-lots of hair pulling and ripped apart toys to begin with) but it was actually a great opportunity for the psychologist working with the cast to have a couple of play therapy sessions with the kids each week, and also work with the mums on how to help their kids through trauma.

trojan women workshop 1.jpg

Workshopping 'Trojan Women' in Amman, December 2013. Photo: Itab Azzam.

HM: Why ‘Trojan Women’? Is there something about this play in particular that speaks to modern experiences of conflict?  Did you consider other texts or was the Euripides text central from the start of the project?

CE: It was always Euripides, from the start. Euripides wrote the play in 415 BC as an anti-war protest, complaining at the way the Athenians had behaved, when they had taken the neutral island of Melos, killed all the men and sold the women and children into slavery. We also wanted to use a famous play, because we knew that it could be seen as a metaphor. Also because again we realised that it would be much easier to fundraise for, and also to use as a PR tool, than, say writing new play about the Syrian conflict. But of course the genius of ‘Trojan Women’ is you could literally put it on anywhere, with refugees, in any conflict zone from Syria to Somalia to refugee communities in the UK. And we hope that in the future the Trojan Women project will be able to expand to other conflict zones.

We have been looking for other, different plays to use for further projects, but so far nothing is quite as perfect. As I said before, the great advantage of ‘Trojan Women’ is that, because the amateur cast are playing out experiences very similar to their own, even though they are not professional actors, they can give very powerful performances.

HM: What was the response to the play by the audience in Amman in December?  Any surprising responses or comments?

GP: I’m not sure if it was necessarily surprising, but amongst overwhelmingly positive responses and reviews, we did have one slightly negative review in an Arabic online newspaper that felt the production was obviously too Western-influenced because Bashar Al Assad wasn’t mentioned. But actually that was a choice the women made amongst themselves, and there’s a great scene discussing exactly that in the documentary. They were given a totally free rein by the director and his team. 

Aside from that, it was interesting that even those in the audience who didn’t speak Arabic and were following the action via the programme notes, found the production very powerful, and were particularly moved by the real-life stories of the cast that they performed on stage. For the refugees in the audiences, the experience was apparently deeply cathartic, as essentially, in some sense, they saw their own lives being performed on stage. Added that, they saw an audience watching, and beginning to understand what their life must be like. And that was exactly the response of the non-refugee audience. It’s hard to empathise if you don’t know, and don’t understand. Those I spoke to came away really struck by what they’d seen, saying that no matter how much they might have followed the conflict and humanitarian crisis in the news, they had had no idea what being in that situation is really like until they had seen it acted out on stage.

HM: Charlotte, as you mention, you began your career in Sarajevo during the conflict of the 1990s, and the ‘Trojan Women’ project immediately brings to mind Sontag’s staging of ‘Waiting for Godot’ during the siege of Sarajevo.  Was that an inspiration?  Or your experiences in Bosnia more generally? Is theatre a medium that speaks to people in some immediate or necessary way during war in particular?

CE:  Yes, in a way. I remember Susan Sontag coming to Sarajevo very well. I was the Observer's correspondent there, and stayed in the same hotel as Susan. She came for about six weeks and I got to know her a bit and covered the play. I have to say that a lot of the journalists were quite cynical about her being there, and thought that the Sarajevans didn't need ‘Waiting for Godot’, but we were quite wrong. The Sarajevans were culturally starved as well as short of food. They saw themselves as Yugoslavia's cultural capital before the war.  I interviewed Susan and wrote a piece about the play which I hope reflected this. Unfortunately my editor ran it under the headline 'Radical Chic in Theatre of the Absurd' and Susan Sontag never spoke to me again!  

But I have always remembered the great gratitude the Sarajevans felt to her, and for artists who recognised that people are not just animals, and don't only need food and shelter.  That's not to say the UNHCR didn't do an amazing job in Sarajevo, they did, and the UN food convoys and so on kept the city alive, but people do need food for the mind and soul as well. And of course in war, when people are by the very nature of their situation, sadder, more confused, more looking for psychological or emotional support, the arts are an enormously powerful tool.

trojan women workshop 2.jpg

Workshopping 'Trojan Women', Amman, December 2013. Photo: Itab Azzam.

HM: Georgie, you were working with women who have recently experienced conflict, including losing family members, and then the experience of becoming refugees – did the play work as an outlet for the women involved to work through their experiences of war? If so, how did this come through?

GP: The feedback we had from the women involved was that having a forum to talk about what had happened to them with others who had had very similar experiences, and also to explore those common experiences through the medium of fictional characters who had also experienced these things, gave them a newfound strength. They said they had so much to get off their chests; grief, anger, and strong feelings of injustice and powerlessness-so many different emotions that they’d previously very much kept to themselves and bottled up, essentially. The depression and ‘shut-down’ that comes with trauma usually means that a person’s creativity shuts down too, so for the cast to begin to open up and share in a workshop context and then in the larger context of the play was extremely empowering. In a sense, they were able to bring something positive out of something so terrible-to create something from a place of destruction and loss.

HM: As well as staging the play, your production ran drama workshops with Syrian refugees in Amman.  How did these go?  Was it important to have an element of ‘drama therapy’ in the production?  And how did these workshops feed into the ‘final product’ of the staged show?

CE: The workshops were essentially part of the rehearsals for the show. It was very important for the ethos of the project to have an element of drama therapy, as we wanted the women to be able to express their feelings, and feel some sort of relief from the great sadness that many of them were suffering from. Being a refugee is essentially depressing and boring. You have lost your home, your job, your old life, and in many cases, your family members, your friends – literally.  The women were able to tell their own stories in the workshops - and many of them said how wonderful it was to be able to finally tell an apparently unfeeling world what had happened to them. And many of their stories were worked into the final text of the play. The workshops also provided a new community for the women, many of whom felt very isolated in Amman. Some of the women who wanted to be in the workshops did not want to be in the final production on stage, but at least they had the benefit of taking part in the workshops. 

HM: The play was staged in Amman in December, where the actors involved are now based as refugees.  Was their involvement in the play a means of exploring some of the issues of what it means to be a refugee?  And perhaps a way of coming to terms with new realities?

GP: Exactly. Several of the women participating said that they identified very strongly with the characters of the refugee women in the play, and in particular the devastating loss and total upheaval of their lives. We filmed an interview with one of the women participating, Fatima, (which you can see on our website), where she explains this to us. She draws a parallel between Hecuba, erstwhile Queen of Troy, and herself and her fellow cast members. Hecuba used to run a kingdom, and Fatima and several of the others see the homes they used to run as their lost kingdoms, if you like. ‘That’s us now’, she says. But on a very positive note, all the participants said that the experience of exploring these new realities and performing them to an audience of people who were actually listening to what they had to say, was enormously empowering. Several women spoke about finding their voice again, and were adamant that they wanted to whole world to hear about what had happened to them. They felt that the play expressed them and their lives as they now are.

HM: The canon of Greek literature and theatre obviously has a strong heritage of continuation in Arabic culture and education.  Were many of the cast familiar with the Euripides play? Were the responses to the the play by the cast different to what you’re used to, as someone who came to Greek theatre from (what could be seen as) a ‘western’ education?

GP: Actually, although just about everyone was familiar with the stories, whenever ‘Troy’ was mentioned, most often the name ‘Brad Pitt’ came up, from the recent film! The story as interpreted by Western filmmakers seemed to be very well known. As for interpretations, one thing that I found very interesting was that no one wanted to play the character of Helen of Troy. There was a strong general feeling that she was unlikeable and unsympathetic, to put it mildly! So in the end the performance concentrated on the experiences of the refugee characters, and the scene of the trial of Helen wasn’t included.

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Workshopping 'Trojan Women'; Amman, December 2013.  Photo: Itab Azzam.

HM: Following the staging in Amman in December, there is now a forthcoming film based on the workshops and experience of putting the play together, is that right?

GP: As much as the cast could perform the play to hundreds, we thought that this would be an amazing opportunity for the stories of these women to reach a wider, international audience through the medium of film. We managed to get a grant to cover the shooting of the film, and were very lucky to have the award-winning film maker Yasmin Fedaa, who has family ties to Syria and has spent a lot of time there, film the whole project from the first day of the workshops to the final curtain call. In a few days she built up the most wonderful bond of trust with the women of the cast, so that although some did not want to be filmed for security reasons, she was able to film workshops, rehearsals, and conversations in the breaks between rehearsals (which were often just as interesting!). She followed three of the women in particular, who took her back to their homes where she was able to film them and their families and have an unprecedented opportunity to observe the daily realities of life for Syrian refugees living in Amman, and to hear their take on what has happened to them and to their country.

In the documentary, you really get to see the laughter, the tears, the heated discussions, and the transformation of these women from slightly nervous amateurs -  crucially none of whom had ever acted before! -  into women who had regained their confidence and wanted to speak out and bear witness. It’s an all too rare perspective, I think, and that’s what excites me most about the documentary. The surprise for me was how genuinely comic some of the footage is – but given the good humour and feistiness of some of the characters involved, it’s maybe not such a surprise! We are in the early stages of post-production, and seeking funding to get the film edited and fully finished ready for an audience.

HM: You have plans to return to Jordan and tour the play in different cities throughout the country in 2014.  What will that involve? Will there be new workshops?  Is the tour all set to go ahead or are there still uncertainties with funding and logistics?

GP: After the success of the performances we have had invitations to tour the performance as far as the US and Europe, but we would really like to reach a wider audience of refugees in Jordan and the Jordanian host community, and other refugee audiences in the region. So we are working on that now, and also on creating new drama therapy groups and new productions of this play or other plays that could work in this context in Jordan and, we hope, elsewhere in the region. We would also like to bring this project to the refugee camps. One advantage of this particular project is that it can work with just about any group of refugees anywhere.

At this stage, though, we are a small team, and the budget for the first project was raised entirely by private charitable donations. So, to expand the project and take it forward we are looking to raise more funding and also to partner with larger organisations who have similar aims. UNHCR are keen to lend their support to a mobile tour of Jordan with the aim of reaching those refugee communities who are more vulnerable and harder to reach, which is encouraging – but we need more partners and some more funding to make it happen, which we are working on now. Most of the cast are happy to travel, keen even, and logistics are in some ways less of an issue. Of course, getting visas for the cast to travel outside Jordan will be an interesting experience. In fact, I think the UK could turn out to be the most difficult country for the production to visit on that score, by all accounts.

HM: Lastly, the production of ‘Trojan Women’ placed the experiences of Syrian women centre stage.  Are you disappointed at the lack of Syrian women’s voices at the Geneva 2 peace talks this month?  Is staging the play in Amman an effort to highlight how we must listen to the female experiences of war?

GP: Absolutely. One thing that kept coming up during the workshops was that the women felt ignored by the outside world. The prevailing feeling was that no one cared about what they had suffered or the extreme difficulty of their situation now, and that what they wanted above all was a platform to speak out. Many of them said that they’d been wishing and hoping for something like this. As much as there was of course a range of political opinion within the group, what they all wanted to focus on was the human cost of the war. The narrative of the Syrian conflict is a very male-dominated one at the moment. But of course, that’s less than half the story. Women and children make up something like over 3/4 of Syrian refugees. The experiences and opinions of the group we worked with were of course similar but also made up quite a varied cross-section, and a massive part of the narrative of the conflict in Syria -  a part that they felt would never be witnessed or documented unless there was a platform for them to be heard. And that would be a huge injustice to them, to ongoing negotiations, and to history.

Refugee Week: Women's Voices: To mark Refugee Week, from 16-22 June openDemocracy 50.50 presents a range of articles written by refugee women authors and refugee rights' activists around the world. All articles are taken from People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

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