The Trojan Women

Fall, 2005
Written By: Alan Shapiro with Peter Burian
Directed By: Ellen Hemphill

Though The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BC and was based on a war that had been fought many centuries earlier, the message to audiences is as relevant today as it was then. Ellen Hemphill of the Department of Theater Studies faculty directed The Trojan Women, which ran in Sheafer Theater in the Bryan Center from November 10-20, 2005.

Hemphill speaks of some of the unchanging aspects of war that she considered as she created this new production. "Women and children are always the ultimate victims of war. They are not mentioned in statistics; they are not glorified as heroes; they are losers even if they were not on the battlefield--they lose husbands, sons, fathers, and if they are in the battle zones, their homes, other children or their own lives. There is still that same brutality worldwide; women are raped and scattered and forced to move from their homes...whether in Iraq or the Congo or elsewhere."

The Department of Theater Studies chose The Trojan Women not only because of its obvious classical importance and academic value, but because it speaks to these contemporary issues as well. Students studied all aspects of the text before moving to rehearsal and production, with class members making up the cast and crew of the play.

The edition of Trojan Women from which Hemphill created her production is a theatricalized version of the adaptation/translation by Alan Shapiro, William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill with Duke's own Peter Burian, chair of Classical Studies and professor of Comparative Literatures and Theater Studies.

Hemphill invited accomplished New York composer Allison Leyton-Brown and lyricist Stephen Tomac to contribute original music. Jan Chambers of the Theater Studies faculty was the set designer. Chambers has collaborated with Hemphill on numerous productions of Archipelago Theatre, for which Hemphill is artistic director.

Hemphill is known for her use of movement and music and surprising settings to bring an audience closer to the emotional core of a production. "I hope that through the music, the songs, the movement, and the set, and the choice to place the action in a somewhat seedy circus environment, the audience for Trojan Women will be able to relate to the basics of the story," says Hemphill. "I have chosen to take 'noble' women and put them in demeaning situations--in circus acts, in circus costumes--to show more clearly how their treatment as the spoils of war 'feels' rather than just telling the audience what happened to the characters."

Leyton-Brown followed a Brechtian model (ala Three Penny Opera) for the music. "The idea was to juxtapose the incredible darkness and weight of war against the grotesque color and playfulness of a carnival," she explains. "Younger audiences will likely be jolted and pleasantly surprised by the boldness of the songs and their place in such a 'classical' context. I'm drawing musical inspiration from artists like Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Kurt Weill," says Leyton-Brown.

While a play written so many centuries ago may seem remote, Hemphill is confident she can transport it to the here-and-now. "My job is to add image and sound and anything else that brings the visceral response to this ancient story through my direction," she says. "The visceral response is what will make it timeless."