Any party in the coming election that proposed a law banning theatre directors from using the Gulf War as a reference point would be doing theatregoers a service.
Laurence Boswell’s production of Tony Harrison’s modern adaptation of Euripides’ harrowing tragedy certainly doesn’t hold back from drawing parallels with modern events, particularly when Darrell D'Silva’s Odysseus addresses Hecuba in the instantly recognisable cadences of George W Bush.
It’s over-spicing this Greek feast: Euripides’ play has plenty to enthral the modern audience, Harrison’s fine translation supplies the necessary political touches and modern parallels (when Odysseus proclaims that “democracy demands a human sacrifice”, one can already hear the measured tones of a consummate politician), so the Bush impersonation adds nothing to the impact. (It’s also a questionable move politically; as the smooth fixer of the Greek camp, Odysseus is surely more of a Blair or Powell figure anyway).
Boswell’s decision to use a full, musical chorus (rather than the single woman of the recent Donmar Warehouse production starring Clare Higgins in the title role) rather overwhelms Hecuba’s own story. The tale of this woman - who loses her husband, her home and most of her children and who is then taken into slavery where she sees two of her remaining children killed - touches all of us. The combination of a chorus of women, chanting to Mick Sands’ dissonant music reminds me of feminist agitprop of the 1980s as much as the plight of female refugees of today.
Vanessa Redgrave’s Hecuba is almost overwhelmed by this onslaught. She seems a frail, vulnerable figure (the opening of this production was delayed through her ill health – See News, 12 Jan 2005), stumbling over her words a couple of times. When Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena offers herself to the Greeks as a sacrifice, the mother’s spirit seems almost too broken to protest, her abject figure of grief emphasising her isolation. Later, when the messenger Talthybius (a beautiful cameo from Alan Dobie) tells Hecuba of her daughter’s death, she’s left practically mute.
It’s this passive vulnerability that makes her actions in killing the sons of the treacherous Polymester seem almost more shocking - who would have thought that this Hecuba was capable of such cruelty? But at the end, when the blinded Polymester (also played by D’Silva) rages at her over his murdered sons, Redgrave’s fixed, mocking smile at his grief reminds us of the depths to which humans can be driven and tells us more about the cruelty of war than a thousand theatrical gimmicks.
- Maxwell Cooter