Hecuba – October 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Marina Carr

Directed by Erica Whyman

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st October 2015

A number of people had told us about this play beforehand: there was a lot of reported speech and it ran for one hour fifty minutes without an interval (actually one hour forty-five on the night). It was also heavy going in the manner of most Greek-based drama, with lots of suffering and unpleasantness and little in the way of humour to lighten the mood. Having said that, we found there were some laughs, but on the whole the piece had a poetic intensity which accentuated the suffering. We ‘enjoyed’ it, but for once we’re happy not to have booked a second visit, although if it gets a revival in a few years’ time we’ll probably see it again.

The set was simple and added to the power of the performances. A shiny black floor covered the whole acting area and I could just make out in the gloom at the back that there was an angled reflective screen across the stage behind the thrust. It appeared to be in panels, and later on it broke in two, with the sections moving apart to create some entrances at the back. Apart from this, and a bright light shining on it during scene changes, it didn’t add much to the production, but then it didn’t get in the way either. Behind that we could see the brickwork of the rear wall, so there was unlikely to be anything else hidden from view. In the centre at the back of the thrust stood a wooden throne, spotlit, and the side balconies were separated tonight without the connecting walkway. And that was it. We sat by the right hand walkway a few rows back, and although they didn’t use the upper gallery there was a fairly full house elsewhere.

The lights went down for the start and Hecuba (Derbhle Crotty) came on and sat on the throne. She took us through a description of lots of dead bodies piled up around her, to which the grieving Andromache (not actually present) added her grandson’s body, the head bashed in by a Greek soldier. Hecuba’s daughters Cassandra (Nadia Albina) and Polyxena (Amy McAllister) joined her on stage, and then gradually joined in the story-telling as well, also reporting what they and others had said.

This expanded even further when Agamemnon came on (Ray Fearon). He was very taken with Hecuba, but she was still angry at the Greeks for the loss of Troy, her family and her positon as Queen, so the sparks flew between them, sometimes reported by him, sometimes by her. I found it easy to follow this type of speech pattern: it may have been partly because others had told us what to expect, but I suspect it was more to do with our experience of similar performance styles such as in The Rape Of Lucrece, where Camille O’Sullivan narrated the poem, along with music, song and movement. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed the flicking back and forth between the two main characters, with some of the reported dialogue then being said by that person as well. It created a dramatic and poetic rhythm to the piece which was very effective.

I won’t go through the whole story. We saw and heard from Odysseus (Chu Omambala) the arch manipulator, Nepotolemus (David Ajao) the son of Achilles, and Polymestor (Edmund Kingsley) the King of Thrace, whose young sons were held hostage to make him produce the last remaining son of Priam, Polydorus (Luca Saraceni-Gunner). The three young boys were all killed along the way, Polymestor was blinded and Polyxena was sacrificed to Achilles’ ghost to raise another wind so that the Greeks could sail home – a symmetry not lost on Agamemnon whose sacrifice of Iphigenia did the same for the outward voyage.

The sacrifice scene was staged very powerfully. Xenia (Lara Stubb), one of Hecuba’s women, brought on two large bowls. One was placed front right and the other back left. While the preparations were being reported to us – Odysseus persuading Hecuba to hand over her daughter, the men waiting in ranks to see the ritual – Xenia poured a thick dark liquid out of a small pail into the forward bowl. I took this to be blood, but later we learned that it represented both blood and oil, as in sacrificial oil. Once it was ‘deployed’ (see below), I could see that it wasn’t red, which confused me a little but didn’t take away from the overall effect.

While the other characters stood at the rear of the thrust, telling us what went on as well as what they said and felt, Cassandra, who had already ‘seen’ the death of her sister, came slowly over and knelt by the bowl, placing her hand on top of the contents. When Agamemnon reached the point of cutting Polyxena’s throat, Cassandra took her hand and smeared the liquid over the side of her face. Another cut, and she spread even more of the dark viscous substance over her face and throat, continuing until she was plastered with it, down her throat, down her dress and on her legs as well. She also echoed the twitching of Polyxena’s death throes, and when her sister finally died, Cassandra stood up and, after a short pause, left the stage. I wondered if this was as tough to perform as it was to watch.

The men were still restless; the ceremony had been botched, with Polyxena lasting longer than expected. Agamemnon had a moment of inspiration, and pretended to be channelling the spirit of Achilles, who declared himself happy with the offering and promised there would be a wind ‘soon’ – nice and vague, that. Hecuba’s grief was overpowering her – and this was before she’d learned of Polydorus’ death – and in a moment of vulnerability she finally agreed to go to Agamemnon’s tent where the two of them made love. That was a surprisingly erotic scene, with the descriptions being illustrated by their movements without ever degenerating into sexual explicitness. In the morning she found out about her last son’s death and Agamemnon had his wind to return home. Polymestor came on, blinded, to report his sons’ deaths, and then Cassandra finished it off with some final words.

It may have been a tough evening for everyone, but they were rewarded with strong applause, well deserved. All the performances were tremendously good, with Derbhle Crotty and Ray Fearon in particular creating a powerful partnership in this unusual piece. Lara Stubbs also did the singing which punctuated the play, usually occurring in the scene changes, and although the music demanded a strange wailing sound most of the time, her voice was beautifully high and clear, which made that aspect of the production work very effectively. The costumes were also appropriate, with the women generally wearing simple dresses and the men in assorted outfits which gave a strong sense of their place in the story: Agamemnon wore battle gear and was bare-chested, Odysseus was in a strange grey confection with a bulky skirt and Polydorus had nifty pale yellow pyjamas. We both felt that the play was just a bit too long for comfort – I’m referring to the seating now, rather than the subject matter – but I’m not sure what could be cut out if you’re going to tell this story in this way.

I liked the irreverence of the dialogue (if one can use that word for this series of mini-monologues), especially in the suggestion that the Greek version of this story was full of lies: apparently Helen was an invention, an excuse for the Greeks to invade Troy and destroy it in order to steal its treasure and remove a competitor. Agamemnon was convinced that killing young women had nothing to do with controlling the weather while Cassandra, with her annoying habit of seeing the future, was spiky with her mother and flirtatious with the Greeks. Her mother had rejected her, and given her tendency to be right about the nasty things that were going to happen, I glimpsed how difficult it might be for everyone in that family to live with Cassandra’s power of prophecy. The performance held our attention throughout, and it seems that the writer has finally found a suitable subject for her unusual style of writing.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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