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A CurtainUp Review
---Original Review of London Production by Charlotte Loveridge ---
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.
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