As I left the performance of Troyanne at Chapter a group of women who had been in the audience at Chapter's studio were tightening into a group hug, seeking mutual solace and comfort after the relentless pain of the play. This is an unflinching, deeply tragic play based on true stories of personal loss suffered as a result of America's epidemic of gun ownership and gunplay. Ian Rowlands has written a world-class drama – a steely, unflinching and entirely unsentimental work.
The quartet of actors (Caroline Bunce, Rebecca Knowles, Jannah Warlow and Dick Bradnum) totally and collectively delivered, offering cool performances of nuanced pain, rage against the Fates and world-whipped resignation, with the emotions constantly pressure-cooking on the inside, all under the assured direction of Chris Durnall. Boldly, and very baldly staged, employing the very minimum of props (but given implied space and the colour of birdsong courtesy of a very effective sound design by Dan Lawrence) this was and is Greek tragedy for gun-ridden times. Powerful. Challenging. And deeply, deeply wounding.
This production by Company of Sirens deserves to, and needs to be seen more widely. It is not a preacherly play, but it is most disarmingly powerful (pardoning the pun) in its examination of the painful and tragic consequences of lax gun control in a huge country.
In his programme notes for Troyanne, Ian Rowlands references the selfishness of the writer, remarking on the potential for dramatic invention inherent in the most horrendous news headlines. The play is set in the small town of Troy, Ohio—not too far from Athens, which is also referenced. We are being prepared for tragedy of epic proportions, which is duly served up.
Inspired by stories of accidental family shootings in smalltown America, and with Middle Eastern wars as a backdrop, this could easily have been a shallow, self-righteous rant about US militarism and gun culture. The fact that it is a more nuanced work than the prior publicity suggested is a testament to Rowlands’s humanism.
This is a “bare-bones” production in Chapter’s small studio space. The small audience is seated on either side of Bethany Seddon’s sparsely decorated set, comprising a porch swing, a tree-stump, and a bench. As we enter, a young woman is idly making patterns in the soil on a summer’s day; she is joined by two older women, and they start chatting in a genial manner. Then, a shot rings out…
The central character is Hannah, a woman whose husband and son, both soldiers, have survived foreign conflicts, only to die in their own home. Caroline Bunce gives an immensely powerful performance as a woman eaten up with grief and fiercely angry with a God who has abandoned her. Rebecca Knowles plays Tory, her neighbour, who has suffered losses of her own, but has found a degree of spiritual equilibrium.
The first half of the play is reflective, as the two muse on past happiness and misfortune. Just as it seems in danger of floundering, a verbally maladroit but well-meaning police officer (Dick Bradnum) appears, bringing more bad news, and the dramatic temperature rises. The young woman, Hannah’s disliked and traumatised daughter-in-law (Jannah Warlow) returns; further unfortunate events ensue.
Director Chris Durnall marshalls his resources with skill and sensitivity; Dan Lawrence’s sound design is especially clever, every element—a barking dog, gunshots, emergency sirens—seamlessly synchronised with the text. Jane Lalljee’s lighting effects are also highly effective, especially at a crucial, climactic point.
The text only briefly acknowledges that such tragedies as are depicted in the play also occur in corners of the world less subject to the mass media spotlight than the USA. Nevertheless, the fact that Hannah and Tory occupy divergent philosophical positions means that we are treated to more of a debate than might have been expected—possibly down to the author having gathered testimonies from the real women of Troy, as part of the play’s development process (in conjunction with The Lark Centre in New York).
It’s hard to imagine that a “full” production could be any more potent—the proximity of the actors and the bareness of the performance area mean that the audience has no choice but to focus on the characters and their pain. Its bleakness may not appeal to everyone, but Troyanne is a compelling piece, and Company of Sirens certainly deserves to be successful in its attempt to attract funding for a future, extended run.
Troyanne by Ian Rowlands
Produced by Company of Sirens, directed by Chris Durnall
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Oct 1st – 5th
Troyanne is, in part, a reworking of Euripides’ tragedy, capturing the same tone of angry desolation and loss that permeates The Trojan Women. Ian Rowlands uses the motifs and structure of that play, however, to explore different, contemporary concerns (most particularly, a gun-obsessed culture and religious faith). The driving force throughout Troyanne is the ferocious grief and outrage of the central character, Hannah (played with great intensity and subtlety by Caroline Bunce), echoing the grieving characters and chorus of The Trojan Women.
In Ian Rowlands’ play, ancient Hellenistic Troy is replaced by Troy, Ohio; Zeus by the Christian God; the seemingly benign Trojan Horse, brought by unsuspecting Trojans into the city, by the new sporting gun brought into Hannah’s home by her son, a surviving veteran of the Iraq War. Mirroring the carnage and devastation caused by the Trojan Horse, this gun destroys Hannah’s family through her own husband’s casual carelessness.
The contemporary themes of Rowlands’ reinterpretation come from the playwright’s own research: accounts of real gun-deaths from widows and bereaved mothers in the actual town of Troy, Ohio. Drawn from these accounts, the deaths in Troyanne are seen to be even more pointless than those of the original Trojans.
Attempting to comfort Hannah is Tory (excellently played by Rebecca Knowles), who has used the certainty of her Christian faith to help her through her own personal grief. She tries to share this faith with Hannah but the senseless destruction of her family has convinced Hannah that Tory’s vision of a loving God is an empty fantasy. There is no relief in this production from the overwhelming mood of accumulating tragedy and disillusion. Even the intrusion into the women’s grief by a clumsy police officer (from Athens, also in Ohio) serves only to arouse hostility and conflict. He will later become the bearer of more bad news. Such an approach to the topic has the potential to lapse into melodrama or boredom but the clash of values and the subtle repetitions and rhythms of the blank verse dialogue give the piece a relentless quality that is skilfully brought to life by director Chris Durnall in a compelling production. Durnall has chosen to begin the play with the first gunshot and the women’s shocked reaction. Whilst not in the original script, this gunshot makes for a highly effective opening, providing a brief, wordless prologue to the play.
The starkly minimal set – the yard outside Hannah’s home indicated by a large wooden swing above a stage covered in loose bare earth and a single tree stump – suits the mood perfectly, as do the eerie recurring snatches of song by a distant crooner. Caroline Bunce’s exceptional performance as Hannah stands out but the whole cast is excellent (Rebecca Knowles as Tory, Dick Bradnum as the police officer and Jannah Warlow as Hannah’s bereaved and traumatised daughter-in-law).
Whilst Troyanne provides an intense, memorable theatrical experience in its own right, it was actually written as part of a larger whole, a play within another play that is being developed by Ian Rowlands and The Lark Centre in New York). This larger play explores the theatrical culture of “reading hell” that many new plays struggle to escape from, into full production. We will witness the actors and director between scenes, reacting to the play and each other in a fictional rehearsed reading of Troyanne. With its bleak relentless tone and seriousness, one can imagine the great potential for contrasting humour, irony and irreverence in the dramatized rehearsals. On the basis of this production, Troyanne deserves a longer run, either as part of the larger play or as a complete play in its own right.