I used to enjoy [in theory] the baby-being-thrown-off-a-castle scene in Euripides' Women of Troy - it seemed far too over-dramatic to work and was thus hilarious. Indeed, in a poor production of the play, no doubt it would be hilarious, with Andromache's mascara-stained cheeks and a plastic baby less an arm belying the grief. In Katie Mitchell's masterful production at the National Theatre, there is nothing ridiculous - we get the full measure of the tragedy.
Set in a concrete repatriation block (or some similar euphemism to describe a glorified holding cell for the Trojan prisoners about to be sent to Greece as slaves), the ballgowned women of Troy pace about and await their fates. The grim atmosphere is occasionally interrupted by Greek functionaries bringing news of increasingly terrible punishments to be inflicted.
Cassandra (Sinead Matthews) tries a fiery self-immolation while whirling about, crying her disbelieved prophecies, while her mother, Hecuba (Kate Duchene, magisterial and superb), the defeated queen of Troy, tries to keep the peace and her dignity in the face of the indignities she has suffered and will suffer. Andromache (Anastasia Hille) is torn from her baby, who returns only to be buried in a cardboard document box.
The women - who include a chorus which delivers its odes straight to the audience like we are their jailers - are gradually carried off, taken through one of the many thick metal gates which contain the women. Upstairs, Helen - the hated cause of the war - awaits her vengeful husband in her own prison.
There is no plot as such, just a violent meditation on the costs and benefits of war. It doesn't ruin the play to tell you that the benefits are non-existent. There is no use, either, superimposing American and Iraq on the two sides, for tho' the victors are brutal and the vanquished tortured, we have sympathy for the aristocracy of the Trojans. The question is far more complex.
Duchene is frighteningly good as the tortured Hecuba, swinging wearily from calming mother to outraged queen to eristic supporter of Helen's punishment. She conveys the full majesty of Hecuba in whichever mode is required, but with grief always etched on her face. Matthews was somewhat overdone as Cassandra, but it is a demented part.
Mitchell has put together a completely imagined world, one full of theatrical brilliance and intellectual fertility. Trevor Nunn's Lear, which I saw a few days before this, looks like amateur night at the church hall in comparison. There is such thought given to all aspects, including her stage: at one point, the chorus are spectrally dancing to some jazz in the near-dark, while upstairs Helen also dances, this time silhouetted against the light. The blinding contrast works visually and intellectually.
Perhaps the greatest effect was left until last. When the curtain (here, a metal screen) has covered the stage, the sounds of Troy being destroyed by heavy ammunition continue even as the audience claps. Mitchell implies Troy is a real place - it is not over when the curtain falls. This is a warning not to turn our attention away from war zones when we have marked a line under them, for the people we leave are real and their pain is real - just as I believed in the people and the pain of the Women of Troy.