This work is rarely presented, the main criticisms being that the play is too long and there are too many characters. However, under the sapient direction of Valerio Binasco, quite a few cuts were made in this production to make it more fluid and easier for the public to follow.
Euripides’ tragedy is based on the same subject as Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, but the worlds of these two authors couldn’t be farther apart. Where Aeschylus concentrates entirely on the character of Eteocles, the city under siege and the unravelling of a predetermined destiny, Euripides showcases all the characters, gives the full context of the reasons for the war between the two brothers, and then brings it all down to human scale.
The scenery centres on a dead white tree with a bright red carpet covering the stage. A military junta is running the city under siege; the imminent catastrophe of the war is looming. A group of Phoenician women, the choir, comes seemingly from nowhere, detached observers wearing motionless masks, sitting on stage until the end, while a live piano haunts the stage with obsessive leitmotivs. In this dystopian framework the director forces the spectator to oscillate between two parallel dimensions: the endless horror ravaging Oedipus’ family and, by contrast, the imperturbability of foreign women.
In actual fact, it is a family saga that unravels before the eyes of the public. Jocasta, interpreted by an outstanding Isa Danieli, dressed in mourning clothes, appears as a battered woman who is trying to keep what is left of her house together rather than as a queen: she is mainly a mother imploring her sons to stop fighting. But Eteocles‘rage is stronger than the love for his brother Polynices. He is blinded by the thirst for power. On the other hand, Polynices, in order to claim his right as ruler of Thebes, has declared an unjust war on his own family and citizens. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, as a temporary ruler, talks about putting the common good and safety of the city first. But when that requires the sacrifice of his own son he retracts his words. A blind Oedipus sits in the back silently, a haunting presence, as he is the cause of all the troubles. Antigone, beautifully interpreted by Giordana Faggiano, brings a youthful freshness at the beginning, but in a day she becomes a mature woman. By transgressing against Creon’s order and giving burial to his brother Polynices, she sets the highest example of human piety and civilisation even though this act costs her exile.
In all this whirlwind of passions and confusion, the Phoenicians bring clarity and wisdom. They possess an ancient knowledge that gives them the ability to understand the deep reasons for these events.
There is not a single weak moment during the performance; everything is at the highest level, from the actors’ interpretation to the music to the direction mixing in comic elements too, to balance the horror of the story. Themes such as the evil of anarchy, the fight for power, the acceptance of foreigners and the ambiguity of governments are vividly represented, thanks to the judicious cuts of the original text. The direction and all other aspects of the production make this old story still very relevant and able to resonate with a modern audience.