nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
June 18, 2005
Any production of a classic play which is promoted as “eerily relevant” (or words to that effect) to contemporary audiences makes me a little wary. One rarely hears this expression associated with Medea, Hamlet, or Death of a Salesman—all three of which have always seemed to pack a political punch at any historical moment. But this may be due to the fact that they are also fascinating stories filled with vivid characters, and the ways in which they are politically active might not be their primary draw.
Hecuba is an anti-war play, to be sure. Written during the Peloponnesian War, Euripides's subject is the eponymous queen of Troy who, after her land is defeated in the Trojan War, is enslaved and suffers the atrocities of war a mother most fears—the loss (or rather, killing) of her children. The Royal Shakespeare Company in fact bills their production, starring Vanessa Redgrave (and now running at Brooklyn Academy of Music), as “eerily relevant” in advertisements and programs. The phrase connotes a sense of inevitability to this play being produced at this time. But has there been a time when a production of this play would not somehow be relevant?
As the conquered Troy still burns, Hecuba, once-queen-now-slave, begs for her daughter Polyxena’s life as the girl is carted off by Greek soldiers to be sacrificed to the spirit of Achilles. Before the grieving Hecuba can organize a proper burial, her servant hobbles on with a cumbersome bit of bad news in the form of Polydorus’s water-logged corpse that just washed ashore. (Polydorus, her son, had been left in the care of their family friend Polymestor, who betrayed the formerly royal family, drowning the young man for his sack of gold.) So Hecuba plots her revenge—she invites Polymestor and his sons over, so they may pay respects to her freshly-sacrificed daughter. Polymestor lies extravagantly about her (actually dead) son’s current health and happiness before he and his children are lured into a tent by Hecuba, who has instructed a hoard of Trojan women to slay the boys and then pluck out their father’s eyes.
This courageous and ultimately vindicated woman seems like a stellar role for a great actress—and Redgrave is certainly that. But RSC’s production, which alarmingly credits no director, indicates in the program that the U.S. production has been “developed by” its adaptor, the British poet Tony Harrison. Harrison’s script is indeed poetic, but the language is distinctly undramatic, even idle. Combine this with a play that seems (at least to me) more rhetorical than most other Greek tragedies (so many meditations by the Chorus; so little interaction between conflicting parties), and you have a theatrical event that even the immense talents of Vanessa Redgrave cannot save.
Redgrave, in fact, seems pretty lost: committed, but unguided by what feels like the production’s utter lack of distinct purpose. She speaks with agitated anger rather than rage, with cool satisfaction at her revenge as opposed to blood-toothed vengeance, and my interest was not consistently sustained. Though she wailed and bemoaned her fate, and the Chorus of Trojan Women watched on with their permanently wan expressions, I could not understand the importance of watching this play at this time. So I found myself stuck on the Eerie Relevance.
Certainly there are women suffering this way in Iraq at the moment, as there are mothers in the Sudan and other places where there are genocides occurring that are under-(or simply un)reported in United States newspapers. But I found myself trying to recall a period in history when there were NOT women facing these wartime atrocities. So does that make this play so important that it must be seen now? Harrison’s production of Hecuba, at least, does not make a very convincing argument for itself.
If you’re a die-hard Redgrave fan, then you should subway down and see it. If you want to stare at a terrific set (Es Devlin’s design is a seemingly endless mountain of tents, holding the prisoners of war), buy a ticket. But otherwise, I’d click on the “now playing” tab at the top of this page to find the nearest production of Mother Courage and Her Children.