Contains discussion of war and misogyny; contains spoilers
All photo credits – Dasha Tenditna
CASSANDRA attests several times over to the power of words to speak across time – spanning from Homer’s Iliad and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to the publication of the playtext in 1908 by the Ukrainian feminist writer Lesia Ukrainka, and onwards to Nina Murray’s English translation of this playtext in 2021 and Helen Eastman’s staging of it in the immediate present. The current production, touring from London to Cambridge to Oxford as part of the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture, has been hailed as a celebration of Ukrainian cultural identity and anti-colonialism, and as part of a search for compelling sources of national morale and unity against what threatens to become a relentless war of attrition. CASSANDRA does not offer its audience an uncomplicated triumphalism, but rather probes into the impacts of war in-situ. In retelling the story of the Trojan war from the perspective of Cassandra, the prophet doomed to speak truth but never be believed, the play centres those left behind unarmed during conflict, and explores the helplessness and frustration of adult non-combatants, who are so often women.
Ukrainka’s, Murray’s, and now Eastman’s returns to the story of Cassandra were all both timely and prescient at their respective moments of creation. Lesia Ukrainka (1871-1913) is most known for her poetry and plays, but her work ranged widely, including to epic poetry and political essays, and since Ukraine’s independence of 1991 she has become an essential part of its high school and university literary canons. Importantly, she was also an activist in contemporary feminist movements, in circles promoting Ukrainian liberation from Tsarist rule, and a member of Kyiv’s Literary and Artistic Society, which was banned in 1905 for its revolutionary associations – indeed she even translated The Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian. Her political principles unmistakeably infused her writings, not least Cassandra, whose story of a woman isolated, disbelieved and immobilised against the violence erupting around her underlines how colonisation and patriarchy can operate together, and suggests that we must seek liberation from both. Now, with Ukraine once again under sustained threat from Russia since at least 2014, and defending itself against full-scale invasion since early 2022, the work of Lesia Ukrainka is more compelling than ever. It has come to be a subject of renewed research among Ukrainian scholars, as well as a spark for creativity. Murray’s English translation of Cassandra of 2021 and Eastman’s staging of the play in London in autumn 2022 are part of a wider and still-growing movement in response to the Russian invasion to foreground and celebrate Ukrainian culture and ideas on the international stage.
The Eastman production carries forward Cassandra’s multiple temporal layers from antiquity to the present, and subtly but lucidly commemorates them, including with understated Greek touches to otherwise modern costumes, such as a gold bracelet that the otherwise denim-clad Cassandra (a commanding Evie Florence) wears around her bicep. Murray’s translation, as realised by Eastman, bristles with the remains of what has gone unheard from Ukrainians and women at each layer of history. The shadow cast by Ukraine’s colonising neighbour Russia is never explicitly mentioned, but with so much speech about truth and freedom, and about Greek-Lydian-Trojan identities, I think it’s never fully out of mind. Neither, meanwhile, are patriarchal men on the ground. Equally, though, the production refrains from forcing upon its audience any hasty and overly optimistic demands that the questions it raises about truth and history can or should be resolved before all is said and done.
The setting of the Cambridge stint of the production in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the Round Church) proved fortuitous, I think, because it asked the audience to suspend disbelief in more ways than one. Converted into a theatre for a night, or three, the church managed to occupy all the interstices on the continuum between sacred and profane at once. It was, of course, still very much a church, and the cast drew on the space for a sense of mystery, finding a mirror in a large ornate wooden monument, and taking the stony saints’ heads in the upper circle for ‘gods’. Invisible but even more crucial was the acoustic, which not only lent gravitas to the actors’ voices throughout, but also allowed for the sources of particular sounds – the sing-song wails of Cassandra’s mother – to become entirely and beguilingly ambiguous, as their echoes ricocheted in the round. At the same time, however, for the two hours of the performance, the Round Church is not really a church. The six actors onstage and the audience members surrounding them on all sides make it something else: at worst, a place of war, violence, hatred and profanity. This process of co-creation is sharpest when the close-knit ensemble cast sings, in unison, or in harmony. When they do, all their characters (multiple for each actor), even those absent from a given scene, operate together to build a dominant atmosphere that discredits, and eventually closes in on, Cassandra. The only people she has any hope of convincing are us.
The episodes that CASSANDRA dramatizes all gain their charge and their tension from Cassandra’s prophetic powers, which pose as the ultimate blessing/curse dyad to her and to those around her. Despite herself, and the fate she knows Apollo assigned to her never to be believed, Cassandra tries to convince those around her, but is, predictably, ostracised in return. Fractures of kinship come to be demarcated along the lines of who believes whom, all the more devastatingly so because the play is set within such a tightly interlocking circle of relations by blood and marriage, and because familial terms are embedded in the characters’ speech. Cassandra’s moments alongside Polyxena (Mia Foo) provide a compelling example of how it can be possible for two sisters to be simultaneously so alienated and so loyal to one another. As a white-clad Polyxena, Foo captures irritatingly well the air of a pre-occupied bride, about to enter into a new, fictive kind of kinship, reverently trying to understand all the impossibly important exploits of her impossibly successful groom-to-be. Her affectedness sticks out from the rest of the cast – all of whose performances were clean and considered throughout – in a way that draws the audience closer to the perspective of Cassandra, because it reminds us that for her, all the action and argument going on around her is to some extent a conceit, a charade, at least until they believe her version of what will really happen.
Cassandra’s prophesies bring her more painful losses of love, though. Helen (Mairin O’Hagan) rejects her attempts to engage with her eye-to-eye: she ‘hates’ her, snapping ‘don’t call me sister’. Cassandra recognises that the currency of kinship is important, perhaps the most important in a war of oscillating loyalties. This is accordingly the language through which she tries to communicate the seriousness of her visions to others, for example she claims that Priam is ‘no longer a son of his parents’ nor even a ‘man of his country’s’. Here, however, patriarchy and misogyny join forces with Cassandra’s curse to form a particularly strong metaphysical barricade of suspicion against her. Not allowed to fight, she has no way to really prove herself or the relevance of her words to the ongoing gamut of battles. Instead she is a solitary woman, disbelieved as a ‘fearmonger’ in the words of Andromache (a powerfully vindictive Abigail Rosser). Towards the end of the show, Paris (O’Hagan) appears in clothes that are uncannily flamboyant for war, and glibly dismisses her even when it has become clear that optimism is untenable. The guards under the prophetess’s charge sing, drink and revel, making sure they’re at their drunkest just when Cassandra arrives, in order to make a fool of her while the octet of saints of the Round Church stare down blankly from the arches above. Collectively, those around her cast Cassandra as shrill and alarmist, probably in order to avoid acknowledging that catastrophe seems to be unfolding whether she prophesies it or not.
Enter, about halfway through, her twin brother Helenus (a charismatic Joseph Akubeze), formerly enslaved and also a ‘seer’, albeit a more ‘ordinary’ seer in the context of the classical world, who uses ‘birds’ and ‘innards’ to convince his audience of the legitimacy of his prophesies. He readily admits to his twin that he hides behind this ritual, ostensibly to give the impression that the information he supplies (as designated oracle for political leaders) is subject to some external regulation, and most importantly, that he is not responsible for its contents. In what we might read as either a postmodern or Machiavellian turn, Helenus drops the distinction between ‘true’ and ‘untrue’. Rather he sees his role as an appointed ‘voice of reason’ as being to prophesy what is ‘useful’. It is, as always, politics that undergirds the question of which truths are deemed credible. Cassandra’s certainly are not. She has no time or resources for ritual; her only instrument is a notebook that she clings to and scribbles in, a tic that points to the dangerous conclusion that her predictions come not from any visionary ‘process’ but from – God forbid! – her own mind. At least this is the accusation latent in a later insult she receives, that to spin wool is ‘much more becoming than to prophesy’, although of course Greek mythology knit the two closely together in the three female Fates. The comparison suggests that prophesy is, like spinning, making something out of nothing, making things up, and that Cassandra is really speaking ‘just words’.
But if her words were only words and thus ineffectual in any practical sense, how could those around her find Cassandra so intolerable that they threatened to take out her tongue? Andromache accuses her of being ‘terrifying’, actively frightening, creating terror where there was none before. With words alone, she allegedly robs Hector of his courage, and later in rejecting Onomaus’ proposal she ‘jinxes’ him by prophesying his death. If Cassandra is believed, her persecutors fear, she might have the capacity to make things true – a possibility that evokes too much anxiety about female power to be borne. Her twin Helenus courts truth as a ‘modest lady’, who, with all her trappings on, can be safely brought out into the open. Cassandra’s truth is disrobed, ‘naked’, and consequently cannot be looked in the eye.
The greater irony, however, is that Cassandra does not even experience the freedom of which she is accused. Her access to supernatural knowledge is just as constraining as the patriarchy that she physically inhabits. ‘I cannot speak what is not true.’ Because so much of her being is invested in being a vessel for knowledge about the future, ‘these eyes of mine do not know how to say I love you’ to her love interest Dolon (portrayed by Guy Clark with both solemnity and vivacity), even when it counts. She cannot simply stop the fall of Troy, or even predict it with any precision, because she only learns the truth ‘bit by bit’. Cassandra is dismissed for her riddling and weaving of words, but her cryptic insights are in fact emblems of her honesty: she is finding understanding from someone else’s scraps, not fashioning a future at her own carefree whim. In one of her visions, Hector’s bedsheet all but collapses into a shroud – a flimsy cloth separates death and life and simultaneously contains them both. Not only are interpretations of the future precarious and volatile, moreover, based on such clues as this, but so are those of the past. At another moment Cassandra physically unravels a piece of knitwork into a red thread that ‘pulls and pulls’. It threatens to continue unwinding forever, back to the timeless truth that she can read, which is ‘eldest unto all elders’, while truth in her own time is still subject to the skeptical judgment of contemporary elected ‘elders’. The iambic text of CASSANDRA constantly invites us to consider the counterfactual, rewinding time and bringing the trajectories of two warring locales, Lydia and Troy, into tantalisingly close equivalence. Cassandra struggles to exert any force over the course of Trojan history as it actually (or mythologically) goes, however; even as a ‘citizen of Troy’ and a member of its royal family, she is also an outcast, and a woman. When her self-belief, understandably, falters, she finds her vocation to be a ‘waste of time’, complaining ‘I hate this “being asked”’ when no one takes her answer seriously after all.
The other demand that Cassandra hates is the simple phrase ‘I wish’. She can wish, but she cannot guarantee her own or anyone else’s wishes. She still grasps defiantly at free will, however, in love: first in her ex-fiancé Dolon, who addresses her almost reverently as ‘my lady seer’, as if her powers have the potential to be a positive force. Her second suitor, Onomaus (Akubeze), takes matters into his own hands. He thinks that ‘fortune favours the strong’, that is, his own kingly might and manly brawn. This speech is undercut by the earlier comments that ‘we shan’t do any ruling’, for this ‘princess’, as Cassandra is addressed with alternate affection and mockery, has no real control. As a consequence of her powers, she knows her limits much better than her peers, and when imprisoned alongside Polyxena and Andromache, all with their hands bound above their heads, she begins to laugh, as if her metaphysical disempowerment has finally been matched in physical terms. Perhaps it is because this existential pessimism is so hard to face that she ultimately falls into step with Onomaus, in doing so tacitly accepting his confident proclamation that even if she does not love him now, ‘one day you will’ – and that she would, in this, be ‘doing Troy a favour’. The promise of both Cassandra’s and Troy’s liberation can only be found in what might strike some audience members as an almost naïve optimism, and in the decision to marry Onomaus, which summons us all into a new locale for the play’s final scene.
It is through compromise, then, that the proverbial messenger avoids being shot (or killed in a more classically appropriate fashion). In the final scene, Cassandra also abdicates her prophetic powers just as she’s beginning to be believed, a move that’s partially empowering in leaving room for her to exercise other kinds of agency. This ending might be construed as a resignation to ‘ignorance is bliss’ that looks away from emerging truths, and that enables the blaming and shaming of those who speak them. Yet through Murray’s translation and Eastman’s direction we follow Cassandra into a public ceremony – indeed a sudden promenade transition brings the audience into a new part of the space. The effect is to bring Cassandra back into sync with her contemporaries, where they find some peace together, however provisional. For now, it is too much for Cassandra to bear the weight of envisioning the future unsupported, too heavy for her to process alone fresh memories of horrors that affect entire nations, and also too soon for her to begin the work of deciding how the recent past should be written into history. CASSANDRA instead calls for solidarity in each of these tasks, in contemporary Ukraine as in ancient Troy.
Text by Matilda Sidel.
CASSANDRA by Lesia Ukrainka, in a new translation by Nina Murray, played in Cambridge from the 20th to 23rd of February. This tour was part of the British Council's UK-Ukraine Season of Culture, and followed a sell-out run of CASSANDRA at London's Omnibus Theatre. Many of the actors in the production studied at Cambridge, and the play's Director, Helen Eastman, was guest director of the Cambridge University Greek play from 2010 to 2016.