It’s the aftermath of the Greek-Trojan war. The Greeks have sacked Troy and taken its women, including Hecuba the Queen of Troy, as prisoners of war. Becalmed on their homeward voyage, the Greeks stop at Thrace. Here, Hecuba is told that her daughter must be killed as sacrifice to the dead Achilles. And if that wasn’t enough pain for Hecuba to endure, she then learns that her son Polydorus (who was sent to Thrace for protection during the war) has been killed by the Thracian King, Polymestor, for the Trojan gold he carried with him.
Hecuba begs the victorious Greek leader, Agamemnon, to help her secure revenge for the death of her son. Ever the politician, Agamemnon is reluctant to upset his ‘coalition’, but is sympathetic to Hecuba’s pain and arranges for her to meet with Polymestor, whereupon Hecuba affects her revenge.
This new translation of Euripides’ play by Tony Harrison, simplifies the language without making it unduly simplistic. And there are many references to recent events in Iraq. For example, the female chorus describe the Greek troops talking about sacking the city – “Let’s finish it off and fuck off home” they say. But some references to the war in Iraq are too obvious, particularly regarding the Greek ‘coalition’ (even if it was one) - clearly a case where the audience should have been left to consider the similarities rather than being ‘force-fed’.
For Vanessa Redgrave, as Hecuba, this role marks her first appearance with the RSC after an absence of over 40 years. It was worth waiting for if the audience’s reaction was anything to go by, because she commanded their attention throughout.
In the first half of the play, Redgrave quite literally shakes as pain is heaped on pain to unendurable proportions. But she also manages to maintain the essential dignity of both a mother and a queen – a difficult, but successfully achieved, balancing act. In the second half, as Hecuba’s thoughts turn to vengeance, Redgrave’s emotional transition is definite and well marked, but not extreme. Some may find this insufficient or even a little weak, but for me it’s the hallmark of Redgrave’s work – thoughtful, somewhat understated, but always highly considered.
Although the standard of playing in ‘Hecuba’ is uniformly high throughout, Alan Dobie’s performance as Talthybius really shone. His description of Polyxena’s death was painfully moving - “You’ve got the best of children and the worst of fates”, he tells Hecuba. Also impressive was Lydia Leonard as Polyxena who convincingly gave us a woman of dignity and extreme courage, preferring death to captivity.
It’s always a joy to hear live musicians in the theatre, and this is no exception. The militaristic thuds of the heavy drumbeats and percussive ‘zings’ added considerably to the tragic mood and setting. But I was less enthusiastic about the female chorus who sing their lines in a quasi-operatic style. For me, there simply wasn’t sufficient range or variety in the score to equate the vocal performances with the tragedy portrayed by the actors.p> Laurence Boswell’s excellent direction is astute and economically engineered. There’s relatively little movement on the stage, so that attention is precisely focused on the mannerisms of the actors and the dialogue. And Boswell’s direction is well served and enhanced by Es Devlin’s towering and oppressive revolving set, and sombre but authentically styled costumes.
Intense and powerful drama that still has considerable relevance for a modern audience. Highly recommended.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Disappointingly subdued Vanessa Redgrave...Here is a Greek tragedy downgraded and denied." ROBERT HANKS for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Expectations were high, but Laurence Boswell's RSC production is a disappointment of epic proportions." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Vanessa Redgrave is a great actor. But...she gives us only half of Euripides's Hecuba: the grief but not the madness." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "What is surprising, though, as well as desperately disappointing, is what a dreadful mess the Royal Shakespeare Company has made of a play that proved so shatteringly powerful at the Donmar Warehouse last autumn."