The central situation is clear. At the end of the Trojan War, the Greeks are about to depart and set fire to the city. The fate of the women in the royal household is to be settled. Priam’s widow Hecuba gathers them around her in a mood of both resignation and defiance.
The setting is modern. Bunny Christie has designed a dismal outpost in the city that’s like some huge underground car park. The women are dressed by Vicki Mortimer in silk ball gowns, some of them glittering. The chorus of Euripides is assimilated into the play proper, the characters given names that suggest the Muses, or the mythical daughters of Heracles.
Every now and then the entire company sidles into a danse macabre, rather like a kiddies’ version of Pina Bausch. The central tragic thrum of the piece should emanate from Hecuba, but Kate Duchene is no Vanessa Redgrave, and the vastness of her grief comes across merely as melancholic whinging.
Her daughter Cassandra (Sinead Matthews) is consigned to the Greek general Agamemnon as his mistress. Her daughter-in-law Andromache (Anastasia Hille), Hector’s widow, is given the worst news of all concerning the fate of her baby son Astyanax, and this grim plot twist seeps into the tone and texture of the whole performance.
The production, running at just 80 minutes, is an outline and infuriatingly hard to follow. The great vaulting speeches of Helen (Susan Trayling) and Andromache have been cut to ribbons. The opening dialogue between the gods Poseidon and Athene has been cut altogether, removing the epic, mythical context of the tragedy, and the choruses are non-existent.
One of the most interesting characters, the Greek messenger Talthybius (Michael Gould), torn between duty and compassion, comes across as a mere cipher, while the self-justification of Menelaus (Stephen Kennedy) carries no wider resonance than the immediate situation. The trouble with diffusing the specific detail of the Trojan War and its consequences is that the general application of “war-torn misery” just sounds hollow.
More of a trial than a catharsis, Mitchell’s production is one of her most sombre without being remotely moving or disturbing, and doesn’t have the inspired technical compensations of her recent work on Martin Crimp and Virginia Woolf in Attempts on her Life and Waves.
- Michael Coveney