The Theatreguide.London Review
Albery Theatre Spring 2005
The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of this rarely-done Euripides tragedy is marked by a lot of courageous risk-taking, and if not all the gambles pay off, it is still well worth the seeing.
Like the similar Trojan Women, Hecuba is set in the aftermath of the Trojan War as the former Queen of Troy copes with defeat. Here she faces two more atrocities, the sacrifice of her daughter by the Greeks and the discovery that the friend to whom she sent her last remaining son for safety has murdered him.
Somewhat more active than in The Trojan Women, Hecuba not only takes a terrible revenge on the killer, but devises it so that the Greeks have to approve.
At the centre of the play, then, is the combination of high passion and cold dignity an actress must bring to the role of the queen, and few can be more fit to the challenge than Vanessa Redgrave.
While the role could be played with an emphasis on Hecuba's pain or her vengeful anger, Redgrave and director Laurence Boswell have clearly chosen to define her by her hold on the moral high ground.
Redgrave can weep and wail with the best of them, but it is in the depiction of cold fury that she is most powerful, as Hecuba seizes and never lets go of the conviction she is right and justified, even in the face of her conquerors.
I have always considered Redgrave one of the greatest of silent actresses, and she can convey more, and hold the stage more powerfully, with silence than most can with histrionics.
There is a scene near the end in which Darrell D'Silva as the treacherous murderer is literally writhing on the ground in physical and emotional torment while others react, but the scene belongs to Redgrave, standing absolutely still with just the hint of a smile of triumph on her face..
Some of that same power is in the performance of Lydia Leonard as the daughter who goes to her death with a dignity that shames the Greeks, and in Alan Dobie's brief appearance as the Greek general moved by the tale he must tell of her offstage death.
But that much, and it is a lot, is the extent of the production's unquestionable successes, and the rest is either ambitious-but-unsuccessful or just unsuccessful.
In the first category I'd put director Laurence Boswell's treatment of the Chorus. Scholars have always known that the original Greek choruses did something vaguely musical, though no one knows just what it was.
Boswell took the real risk of having them actually sing, in a crooning, semi-operatic style, to music by Mick Sands.
The effect flirts dangerously with the comic - at one point Hecuba has to sing with them and at a slightly jazzy moment you fear they're about to break into Bob Fosse choreography - and at its best has an old-fashioned pop opera feel, suggesting Gian-Carlo Menotti, perhaps. But at no point does it really seem to have anything to do with the style and tone of the rest of the play.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the new translation by the usually admirable Tony Harrison, which not only allows jarring clashing in tone between the self-consciously poetic and the overly colloquial, but keeps changing its own poetic style, at seemingly random moments going into a flurry of Beowulf-style alliteration while other random sequences lapse into jingly rhymed couplets.
Finally, there are a bunch of small things that just don't work. Malcolm Tierney's Agamemnon is wooden, and one can only guess why Darrell D'Silva, doubling roles, was directed or allowed to play Odysseus as a Texan.
And when was the last time in a company of the RSC's stature that you saw one actor's makeup rub off on another so that she spent a whole scene with blue smudges on her face as Redgrave does after Hecuba embraces her dead son?
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