There are times when a theatrical event goes beyond the realm of entertainment, beyond the realm even of art, and touches at the very soul. Euripides' Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, is one such production. Masterfully directed by Jonathan Kent, this new version written by Frank McGuinness is not only timeless in the universality of its tragedy but also unashamedly contemporary in its polemic. I have noted in recent reviews a new voice in British theatre. Gone are the neo-realist kitchen sink dramas of the fifties and sixties, or the pseudo-socialist ranting of the seventies and eighties. Gone also are the sanitized state sponsored confections of the nineties. We are in the midst of a new theatrical age when issues of international importance and personal angst are explored with a freedom and integrity that stems from our collective awareness that all is not right with the world. In fact, all is very wrong.
With this new-found cynicism towards power and corporate greed comes a reappraisal of the role of theatre. Frank McGuinness has translated the horrific tragedy of Hecuba with such integrity, such subtlety of language, that this two thousand four hundred year old play screams its message of terror and revenge with the same power, the same energy, as if its mythology were as fresh and new as our own personal experience.
The Donmar space evokes a peaceful coast where the Mediterranean sea lazily laps against the sun-bleached sand which undulates into a black distance. Paul Brown's brilliant though perilous design constructs a shoreline which drops away dramatically into the deep clouded sea water that dominates the length of the forestage. Waves lap and seagulls shriek in the expanse, whilst ripples animate this super-naturalistic evocation of apparently undisturbed coastline.
The naturalism of the sea and sand is in stark contrast to the looming rear wall of the stage, its black-painted bricks scrawled with what first appears as Banksyesque graffiti. A black-robed figure suspended in a metal cage, her back to the audience, marks each brick laboriously with white chalk letters. Gradually, the words fall into focus and we realise the wall is inscribed with hundreds upon hundreds of women's names -- names as ethnically charged and identifiable as any geopolitical atlas. Palestinian and Israeli, Iraqi and Afghan, American and British, share in the common identity of this transient wall of remembrance. The brush of an actor's shoulder, the sweep of a stagehand's broom could wipe away the memory of these victims of the violence that rocks our world on a daily basis.
The black-robed figure is also the Singer, hauntingly created by Eve Polycarpou, whose pure voice and Southern European passion adds the occasional musical comment to the tragedy unfolding beneath her. Polycarpou provides the link between the narrative of the past and the suffering of the present. Through her hands and through her voice the maternal grief of Hecuba is translated into the maternal grief of all those who watch their children die in struggle and conflict today.
The play begins with the entrance of Eddie Redmayne as the murdered son of Hecuba, Polydorus. The shock of Redmayne's appearance is as tangible as a lightning bolt through an audience which is stunned into wide-mouthed disbelief and wonder. Suffice to say this performance truly is magical. Redmayne delivers his sorrowful tale with ethereal grace as he strokes the surface of the sea. His bitter account of betrayal and murder told with benign simplicity and other-worldly resignation. Redmayne is present for most of the drama as it unfolds. Even in death his handsome youthfulness dominates the stage.
It is the aftermath of the Greek defeat of the Trojans. A victorious army are desperate to set sail for home, but the ghost of the fallen hero, Achill es, is seen to hold the ships in port. Their release will be granted with the sacrifice of a princess of Troy , Polyxena, the young virgin daughter of the dethroned Hecuba, Queen of Troy. Hecuba has lost her husband and eldest son. All she has left, as she huddles in the caves near the shore with the other widowed and grieving Trojan women, is the daughter she adores and the hope that her young son, Polydorus, is safe with his friend the King of Thrace.
Clare Higgins gives the performance of a lifetime as Hecuba, the anti-heroine of this surprisingly feminist classical play. There is no weakness here. No resignation that the fates are ruling her destiny. She may be treated lower than a slave, like a dog, by her captors, but Hecuba has all the survival instinct of a regal cornered animal. News of her daughter's fate is given to Hecuba by Susan Engel, who embodies the role of the Chorus, the voice that explains and bridges the action. Hecuba's reaction is one of outrage, fear and hatred. Why is her life worth living when all those she loves, all those she has nurtured from the womb, are sacrificed to the all-consuming god of war and retribution?
Kate Fleetwood portrays the doomed Polyxena with juvenile passion and dignity. Her fate as a royal princess is inevitable; her death as numbing in its report as the daily bombardment of death tolls from the war-torn Middle East are to us. Alfred Burke reports the sacrifice of Polyxena with the wearied delivery of an old man who has experienced life and death a million times over. Burke's Talthybius seems to glory in the death of the young princess, vicariously reanimating the splendour and honour of Troy through the savage dismemberment of an innocent girl.
The naturalism of the Mediterranean shoreline is shattered each time a member of the occupying forces enters the stage. Nicholas Day as a besuited politician Odysseus comes to inform Hecuba of her daughter's sentence. The sound of sparking electric wires accompanies the fla shing life-throws of three banks of strip lighting high above the stage. As if in the harsh glare of a Guantanamo prison cell, the appearance of this Greek hero changes the dynamic from tragic grief to violent mechanistic oppression. Odysseus spits the accusation that the Trojans are all 'barbarians'. It is this rejection of the other, the untermenchen, which bites into the twenty-first century consciousness.
The same prison lighting state occurs when Tim Pigott-Smith, as the harsh but fair Agamemnon, struts in fascistic military uniform to greet the mother of his concubine from Troy. Agamemnon has taken Hecuba's daughter, Cassandra, for his own. He recognizes a fine line between his lust and the faithfulness of his war-weary and land-locked troops. Although sympathetic to Hecuba's plight, Agamemnon cannot be seen to help her lest it be misconstrued, so threatening his own regal position in his 'Fatherland'.
Hecuba's life is further destroyed by the discovery of her drowned son's body. Polydorus has returned, but his death betrays the greed of his supposed friend and King of Thrace, Polymestor. Finbar Lynch is stunning as this gold-fixated ruler who will slay a young man for a horde of Trojan treasure. The greed for gold motivates the dehumanizing murderous intent of so many of Hecuba's enemies. The gold of Hecuba is glaringly analogous with our own twenty first century black gold -- oil.
Po lymestor is accompanied by his two young sons. The princes embody in life all that Hecuba has lost to death. Her revenge is all the more vicious, all the more subtle in its horror, when compared with the maternal friendship and playfulness she shows the boys as she lures the princes and their father to a vicious fate at the hands of the Trojan women. The desire for gold blinds this ruler to the dangers that await him.
An horrific tableau in the final scene confirms the desensitisation of the modern audience. Images of the scattered remains of suicide bombers and innocent victims have so numbed our senses that what would have been visually impossible ten years ago now smacks of awful ordinariness. Death no longer shocks or disgusts. Death merely saddens. Hecuba's revenge seems justifiable, understandable, in an environment of oppression and irrationality. The final image of her frantically scraping at the sand like a rabid dog, eager to bury the corpses of her sacrificed children, is haunting in its timeless horror.
There is so much more to this production which words cannot express. It is a play of such strength and appeal that anyone who claims to love theatre will recognise it as a great example of British dramatic enterprise. It will haunt you. It will disturb you. It cannot fail but communicate with that unfathomable deep in our collective psyche which reaches back to a time before memory. As I said at the beginning, this production will touch your soul. It is an honour to have seen Hecuba. It is an honour to write about it, and to recommend it unreservedly to you.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004