One Director’s Voice
The Trojan Women speaks out from CBT’s stage
WAR NO MORE: Erin O’Leary, Carol Mayo Jenkins and Katya van den Berg bear witness.
by Leslie Wylie
You can tell a lot about a person by his or her voice. It’s the closest thing the body has to a built-in musical instrument, capable of infinite variations in tone, timbre, pitch and rhythm. Its effectiveness is dependent upon sound waves, vibrations, invisible manifestations of emotion and thought. Some aspects of it are constant. Others can change dramatically over the course of a single sentence.
Consider the voice of The Trojan Women director Veronika Nowag-Jones, for instance. When she talks about her current Clarence Brown Theatre production, the deliberation with which she speaks each word implies that something more is at stake than a mere performance. Each sentence is enunciated with the precision of a concert cellist; she drags the bow of her husky, German accent across them, repositioning each idea before moving on to the next.
“It is a play about war and peace,” she says. “It was written 2,000 years ago, and it is the same today. How crazy and how cruel all this is. War has no law.”
The Trojan Women is a Greek play dating to 415 B.C., produced by Euripides shortly after the capture of Melos by the Athenians. It was meant to portray the tragic postwar conditions of the women of Troy, and the CBT production uses cold, prison-like sets to recreate the forbidding atmosphere. Paul Roche, in the Signet Classic Euripides: Ten Plays suggests that Euripides “wrote The Trojan Women as a prophecy of tragedy to shock Athens to her senses.”
Nowag-Jones fell in love with the play while performing it in Germany 20 years ago. “I kept it in my heart all the time,” she says.
The director feels that the play resonates as strongly with today’s political climate as it did in ancient Greece. She was in Knoxville when the Iraqi war broke out, she explains, casting for CBT’s production of Buried Child . She was struck by the city’s response, the anti-war signs she saw in people’s front yards, and later by the large protests in New York City. She says she chose The Trojan Women as an expression of her own dissent.
“My message is against the war but not anti-American,” she says. “Even people in power are starting to question this war. The only one who feels this war is important is Mr. Bush.”
Nowag-Jones is no stranger to the world’s injustices. She grew up in post-WWII East Germany and saw firsthand the psychological damage it inflicted upon the society around her. In 1972, she was imprisoned for two years after trying to escape her country. The next attempt, in 1974, was successful; she was smuggled via the trunk of a red Mercedes into West Berlin, where she was able to eventually resume her career in the theater.
The director is a playwright as well, and her works frequently address social causes. The issue of rape as a means of wartime domination particularly interests her and is a focal point of The Trojan Women . “Women are the victims of war,” she says. “The enemy has to destroy the women, and part of destroying them is to rape them.”
Rehearsing the production was a challenge, she says, especially with such a young cast and crew. “It’s a very intense rehearsal time because of the subject, dealing with war and violence, doing this every day for seven hours a day,” she explains. “There were times when people were crying, emotionally very involved with the subject.”
The translation Nowag-Jones decided to use is a combination of an American version by Kenneth McLeish and a German version by Matthias Braun. The two versions complement one another, she says. “McLeish is more poetic, and Matthias is more direct.” Initially, she’d considered the idea of also incorporating stories from Bosnia rape camps she’d read about and the Iraqi war but ultimately decided that the play was relevant enough to stand on its own even without contemporary reference points.
“Violence brings violence,” she says, articulating a truth that is still difficult to grasp, even in the most civilized of cultures. “We all belong to each other, and we all need each other. Destruction is not the way.”
What: The Trojan Women