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Hecuba

Euripides in a new translation by Tony Harrison
Royal Shakespeare Company
Albery
(2005)

Vanessa Regrave and the Chorus

The Royal Shakespeare Company have come up with something really special in commissioning Tony Harrison to translate Euripides' tragedy of Trojan Women on Thrace. Not since Fiona Shaw played Medea under Deborah Warner's direction has there been such an exciting revival of a Greek tragedy in London.

Harrison's poetry uses a modern language that majors on magnificently meaningful alliteration, which means that it sounds great but also tells its story well.

Director Laurence Boswell has built his reputation on lively comedy, directing Popcorn and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in the West End and recently, The Dog in the Manger for the RSC's Spanish Golden Age Season.

His vision of tragedy is operatic and unusually, seems best viewed from the Royal Circle rather than the stalls, possibly because of improved sightlines.

Vanessa Redgrave, whose debut season with the RSC was in 1959, plays the Trojan Queen turned slave, who has been washed up on the shores of Thrace following a war with the Greeks started by the beautiful Helen's love for Paris.

Her hope, such as it is, rests in the future of her children but already, in a prologue delivered by the chalk white ghost of her son Polydorus(played by Matthew Douglas), their fates have been sealed. He was lodged by his father King Priam with the ruler of Thrace, Polymestor, together with a weight of gold. Unfortunately greed got the better of his guardian.

Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena (Lydia Leonard) is condemned to death by a vote of the Greek army to pay for the loss of Achilles but her execution is so courageously and honourably borne that she became a heroine to her enemies as much as to her own people. Rather than seeing her death on stage, it is delivered in typical Greek fashion by a remarkably visual speech from veteran Alan Dobie, whose stage career started 53 years ago.

The drama builds from these tragedies to the moment when the ever-greedy Polymestor, superbly played by Darrell D'Silva, who also plays a rather heartless, Americanised Odysseus, brings his tiny sons to meet the defeated Queen.

In a terrifying scene, they are slaughtered and his eyes put out. He appeals to the judgment of the Solomonic Agamemnon. Malcolm Tierney as that wise man listens to the impassioned pleas of the King but is won over by the much calmer Hecuba condemning Polymestor, who ultimately rages as he becomes a vicious seer.

Boswell creates an exciting production within designer Es Devlin's massive revolving cylinder. Hecuba is constantly followed by her twelve woman chorus, all dressed in drab turquoise or purple. They sing their lines to the accompaniment of Mick Sands' modern minimalist music, played by a four-strong band fronted by the plaintive cello of Nick Cooper.

Clare Higgins played Hecuba at the Donmar last autumn and won the Olivier Award for best actress. Miss Redgrave is less emotional but still conveys the grief and vengefulness felt by a queen who has lost her country, her husband and subsequently several of their much-loved children.

This is the kind of part that allows actresses to win awards and it remains to be seen whether Hecuba triumphs two years running. Already in 2005, though there is a lot of competition with Penelope Wilton's Bernarda Alba and Eve Best's Hedda Gabler heading the field.

This is a wonderful evening's theatre that combines horror with beauty. It is likely to sell very well with both a big name in the lead and a short run. For those that can't make it to London, the script is already published and should prove a fascinating poetic work in its own right.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher