Saturday, 10 October 2015

Theatre review: Hecuba

While the Almeida's spent the summer giving us radical rewrites of Greek classics, the RSC has cut Euripides out of the picture altogether and, in what would probably have been a more accurate description of Icke's Oresteia and Cusk's Medea as well, commissioned Marina Carr to write an entirely new play based on the legend - in this case, that of Hecuba. There's a lot of dead children in this story too but Hecuba (Derbhle Crotty) isn't as okay with this as Medea: A mother of eighteen and the former queen of Troy, as the play begins the city has just been taken after ten years of war, and she's not yet quite understood the "former" part of her title. The Greeks have demanded that no male Trojans be left alive, and as most of her children were sons, she sits in her throne room surrounded by their dismembered bodies. Taking comfort from her two remaining children, she stands up to the triumphant Agamemnon (Ray Fearon.)

But her youngest son isn't as safe with neighbouring king Polymestor (Edmund Kingsley) as she hopes, and when the winds don't come to send the Greeks home, they look for a sacrifice to mirror Iphigenia's - and Hecuba's daughter Polyxena (Amy McAllister) is the obvious candidate.

Unrestrained by the conventions of classical Greek Theatre but keeping some of its feel, the most obvious structural change in Carr's text (there's also a few story changes) is in the way she's extended the genre's style of telling, rather than showing the story, to make almost all the speech narration; characters tend to be on stage together when they're meant to, but they're more likely to report what each other said, than speak their own dialogue. With no formal Chorus, each character is essentially acting as their own chorus. It's an unsettling but effective technique, but not without its pitfalls.

Chief among them is that Erica Whyman's production could have done with more tonal variety. The stark way the tense confrontations are presented starts out very powerful, as Hecuba stands up to Agamemnon while the audience knows the last threads of her family are being cut elsewhere. But by the second hour this starts feeling monotonous, and by the time of her unlikely seduction by the man who's personally killed many of her relatives, I was wishing for a bit more urgency and anger.

I was also left puzzled as to why in his brief appearance Achilles' son Neoptolemus has been re-christened "Nepotolemus" (David Ajao.) The former had bleakly symbolic significance, the latter... doesn't really mean anything. (The character's also known as Pyrrhus so, you know, if it was an issue of his name being hard to say they could have gone with that...)

A much more fascinating reinvention is that of the other daughter Hecuba no longer acknowledges as her child: Cassandra's been driven mad by the gift and curse of prophecy, usually shown by her raving and crying. But seeing past, present and future as interchangeable and inevitable has driven Nadia Albina's Cassandra into a chillingly glib kind of sociopathy. It's by far the most memorable element of a production with plenty of strong performances and clever ideas, but a lingering coldness at its heart (reflected, literally, in Soutra Gilmour's mirrored set,) that stops the characters' powerful emotions from really connecting with the audience.

Hecuba by Marina Carr is booking until the 17th of October at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes straight through.

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