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Hecuba RSC

The RSC's Hecuba (Restaged) at BAM

Though my colleague Charlotte Loveridge's review (below) reveals a positive reaction to the London staging of this play, the prevailing winds from across the Atlantic are less favorable: this Hecuba received a chilly reception from most London critics. The production, we are told, arrives in a revised version, with which the original director is no longer associated. In fact, no director is credited in the program; the press release merely states that the playwright Tony Harrison has "developed" it for its U.S. engagements.

Physically, the production looks altogether different from that described in London. Set Designer Es Devlin has now filled the stage with some forty or so tents, tiered to suggest a hillside. (That the text tells us the Chersonese peninsula on which the play is set is a flat plain is only a minor quibble, as the effect is a good one, and sets up well the desperate echoes that will later reverberate from those hills.)

The play begins with promise, as the Ghost of Polydorus (Matthew Douglas), Hecuba's last surviving son, tells us what is about to transpire. It's also the first indication that Tony Harrison's new translation will be a clear and poetic one. Hecuba (Vanessa Redgrave) arrives onstage alone, but is soon joined by an enormous chorus of captive Trojan women (a dozen in all).

Redgrave is, as always, fascinating to watch at work, but seems oddly unable or unwilling to negotiate with Hecuba's emotions, or the transformation which she experiences. The chorus, meanwhile, seems a burden that at times threatens to upstage the star. Singing almost all of its text, these women largely remain apart from the action and, while the music is quite nice, it nonetheless fails to keep the storytelling especially well connected. Harrison demonstrates that accomplishment as a poet does not automatically lead to equal facilty with lyric writing: the words are substantially unintelligible. The result is a rendition that is never fully as gripping as it ought to be. It does not help that the actors have been directed mostly to address the audience rather than each other, a particularly ineffective choice in Hecuba's scene with her soon-to-die daughter Polyxena (Lydia Leonard).

Much of Hecuba consists of visits to the slave camp by various monarchs and soldiers. Some fare better than others in the hands of the RSC's men. In the former category is Alan Dobie's heart-wrenching Talthybius, Agamemnon's herald, as well as that of his appropriately conflicted boss (Malcolm Tierney). In the latter camp falls Darrell D'Silva, who does double duty as Odysseus (unwisely speaking in what turns out to be a very lousy Texas accent and conveying very little of the oleagenous nature of this man deliciously described by Tony Harrison as a "shifty-wits, molasses-mouth, mob-schmoozer," as noted by Charlotte Loveridge below) and later as the equally loathsome Polymestor (who changes only in the most predictable ways after witnessing the slaughter of his two young sons and having his eyes poked out).

I'm not privy to the details of the changes Mr. Harrison made since London. But it does not appear they are for the better. This is a production so neutral in affect that one wonders where it got the momentum to make the trip.

Credits are the same as in the original except as noted below.
Laurence Boswell is no longer credited as Director. Principal cast is intact. In the Chorus, Lisa McNaught replaces Barbara Gellhorn. Harry Jackson, Farah Mohamed, Darcy Solomon and Andre Symeou are not in the cast and John Dominici, Christopher Madden and Otto Pippenger rotate (in pairs) as the sons of Polymestor
Movement: Gary Setton
Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, 30 Lafayette Av (St. Felix/Ashland Sts)
Telephone: (718) 636-4100
June 17-18, 21-25 @7:30, June 18 and 25 @2, June 19 and 26 @3; $30-85
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/18/05 performance

---Original Review of London Production by Charlotte Loveridge ---

This, the Queen of Phrygia rich in gold?
This, the spouse of Priam, fortunate and blessed.
Now her city's utterly gutted by Greek force
And she's a childless old slave on the ground,
Her poor old head and hair begrimed with muck.

--- Talthybius
Hecuba RSC
Vanessa Redgrave as Hecuba
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
It is generally said that the truly patriotic role of the ancient Athenian tragic poet was to question his city, probing its attitudes, habits and identity. Euripides' Hecuba responds to this task, focussing as it does on human sufferings under the calamitous pressures of war. For fifth-century Athens, warfare was a habitual way of life. The city-state might have been run by a glorious democracy at home, but only an aggressive imperialism ensured its greatness abroad. Euripides reminded his ancient audience of the perennially relevant paradox of war: the victor's triumph inevitably achieved at the grievous, fatal cost of the conquered. Even for a modern audience this theme never seems to lose its significance.

Hecuba follows the events immediately after the ten-year long Trojan War. The conquering Greek armies, having razed the city, slaughtered the men, enslaved the women and plundered the wealth, are now sailing home. Hecuba (Vanessa Redgrave), once queen, is now captive and bereft of family, status and fortune, but faces even harsher suffering as two of her few remaining children die. The ghost of the famous Greek warrior Achilles has demanded the sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena (Lydia Leonard). Furthermore, her youngest son, Polydorus (Matthew Douglas) who had been sent away to a Trojan ally for safety, is discovered killed for the Trojan gold.

The play is set on the Thracian peninsula, the Chersonese across the strait from Troy. One huge column dominates the uniformly beige stage with three rough cairns across the front of the stage. With no evidence of human civilisation in this temporary anchorage, there is a strong sense of liminality. This reinforces the idea that the captive Trojan women are wholly dispossessed and in transit to the unfamiliar households of their new masters where the reality of their domestic slavery will be fully realized. The costumes, as with the set, defy any specific time or place. The women are dressed in mud-stained robes and headscarves. The Greek men are emphatically soldiers, brutally, heavily armoured with enclosed helmets, a visual reminder of the play's theme of the power and weakness between humans.

Vanessa Redgrave's compellingly consummate performance as Hecuba belies no trace of her recent illness which caused the Stratford premiere of the production to be cancelled. Because there are two distinct episodes in the play, that of Polyxena and that of Polydorus, Hecuba is the main cohesive force and a production's success can rest or founder on a convincing performance of this one character. Redgrave rises to the challenge and portrays the chilling metamorphosis which Hecuba undergoes with persuasive skill. In the first half of the play, this elderly woman who has suffered so much is a tragic victim, played with a very human shabbiness, but she becomes a vindictive, cold-hearted child murderer in vengeance for her son's death. The remorselessly gloating composure with which she displays the gruesomely slaughtered corpses of two infants becomes the real tragedy of the evening. In other Euripides' plays, like the Bacchae, Hippolytus or Hercules Furens, the human bond of sympathy is the only redemptive compensation for the morass of pain which mortals necessarily suffer. In this play, however, Hecuba is denied this slight but precious relief. The set revolves so that it is inside out, mirroring the inversion of Hecuba's character wrought by prolonged, relentless anguish. The seemingly bizarre myth, that she turns into a dog, is the next step in her dehumanisation.

Because of this emphasis on the psychological effect on an individual of such inexorable and profound grief, I think it was a wise directorial decision not to draw the parallel with the modern political world too exclusively. Nevertheless, the play and production is not afraid to engage with contemporary politics. The only outright villain of the play, the "shifty-wits, molasses-mouth, mob-schmoozer" Odysseus (Darrell D'Silva) is played with an American accent, and words full of contemporary resonance are littered throughout the text. The invading Greek armies are the "coalition", Agamemnon's herald is his "ADC" and forces are "mobilised". In this way, we are forcibly reminded of the failure of democracy and reasoned argument to prevent bloody atrocities, but the play's meaning and import are not limited to any single society or age.

Other particularly noticeable performances included Alan Dobie as Talthybius, whose finely-timbred yet powerfully sonorous voice is so well-suited to Harrison's poetry. Matthew Douglas as Polydorus' ghost was excellent and full of piteous emotion. Not an easy part to play, his prologue speech was deeply moving as well as elucidatory. Far from demanding the ghastly revenge which follows, Polydorus only wants one final embrace and burial from his mother. The Chorus, the most unwieldy conventional aspect of Attic drama, is always difficult both for a modern production to stage and for the audience to comprehend as a communal voice. I found them most touching when they described their personal experience of the moment when realizing their city had been successfully invaded.

It is Tony Harrison's superlative new translation which breaches the gulf of centuries and animates the ancient characters so powerfully and poignantly for us. Without taking any gross liberties with the original, his text is at once earthy, dynamic and full of rich alliteration and assonance. For example, a phrase which is literally rendered "much gold secretly sent", becomes "a hush-hush stash of gold". Neoptolemus, whose ruthlessly vicious character was well-known in antiquity, is called "the blood-sodden son of Achilles". Again, Polyxena describes her own impending death: "sacrificed, spreadeagled, struck,/ my girl's gullet gashed open,/ despatched down to the world below/ where dead Polyxena will lie." Providing a sense of the aural intensity and vitality of the original, Tony Harrison makes the audience really aware of the sounds of the words and highlights a dimension of language which can often pass unnoticed. In addition to this musicality, the characters are made accessibly sympathetic through the text's simplicity. For example, Hecuba laments: "more keening/ for women keened dry./ More weeping for red eyes/ whose tear-ducts are drained." The emotional climax of Hecuba's plea for Polyxena's life is voiced in a plainness which is full of pathos: "Don't tear my little child out of my arms./ Don't kill her. Thousands are already dead."

The dignity of the tragedy feels in no way compromised by the vernacular, even colloquial turns of phrase, but instead the characters and their sufferings onstage are brought closer to us. We are lucky that a poetic talent as outstanding as Tony Harrison's has been brought to bear on this classic play of mankind's self-destructive cruelty.

Hecuba RSC
Written by Euripides
In a new English version by Tony Harrison
Directed by Laurence Boswell

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave
With: Matthew Douglas, Lydia Leonard, Darrell D'Silva, Alan Dobie, Judith Paris, Malcolm Tierney, Charlotte Allam, Jane Arden, Rosalie Craig, Maisie Dimbleby, Barbara Gellhorn, Aileen Gonsalves, Michele Moran, Sasha Oakley, Katherine O'Shea, Judith Paris, Sarah Quist, Natalie Turner-Jones, Christopher Terry, Harry Jackson, Farah Mohamed, Darcy Solomon, Andre Symeou
Design: Es Devlin
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Sound: Fergus O'Hare
Music composer: Mick Sands
Music director: Bruce O'Neil
Choreographer: Heather Habens
Running time: One hours 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6621
Booking to 7th May 2005.
Eisenhower Theater Kennedy Center Washington DC 21st May to 12th June 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 7th April 2005 performance at the Albery, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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