Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Hecuba

Euripides in a new version by Frank McGuinness
Donmar Warehouse
(2004)

Greek tragedy is usually pretty bleak but, in terms of intensity and stark brutality, Hecuba can compete with the best of them. As Matthew Parris says in the programme notes, "This is a brutal translation of a brutal story". It seems unlikely that Frank McGuinness would demur from this conclusion on his often poetic new version of the play.

It tells the story of the eponymous Trojan queen, wife to Priam and mother of a dynasty that is being wiped out. The action takes place in Thrace where Hecuba and her daughter Polyxena, together with large numbers of Trojan Women, are enslaved, largely as a result of the actions of the unloved Helen.

More precisely, designer Paul Brown has created a chalky beach complete with waist deep sea around which Clare Higgins as Hecuba sees a virtual conveyor belt of people passing her by. The only constant is Susan Engel's symbolic Chorus who joins her Queen in bewailing loss upon tragic loss.

Following a prologue from Hecuba's dead son Polydorus (played by Eddie Redmayne), the first story is that of Polyxena. As revenge for the loss of Achilles, the Greek people demand revenge in the form of the sacrifice of the Trojan princess. Despite her mother's pleas to an unemotional, besuited Nicholas Day as Odysseus, the sentence must be passed.

Kate Fleetwood perfectly captures the bravery and calmness of a young woman facing an inevitable death, unseen but described in gory detail. Her bravery is recognised by the enemy and she is at least allowed a decent burial.

On discovering that her son, left with a friend for protection, is dead too, killed for gold, the next stage of the story sees Hecuba pleading with Agamemnon (Tim Pigott-Smith) for revenge. He is initially pompous but is soon swayed by the distraught mother, a woman who saved his own life in Troy.

As in the story of Medea, the vengeful attack carried out by the Trojan Women on the treacherous Polymestor (Finbar Lynch) sees the slaughter of his children and his own blinding. The scene where Polymestor, unseeing and with head horribly bloody, confronts Hecuba, at one point like two grappling dogs, is deeply unsettling and will turn the strongest of stomachs. It is left to Agamemnon to judge between right and wrong, which he does with the wisdom of Solomon.

In the play's depiction of conflict and the human cost of war, parallels will be drawn with events today. The use of modern dress, with the Trojans looking like dirty gypsies - or possibly illegal immigrants - may hint at this.

Director Jonathan Kent is unsparing in his depiction of the horror in the story of a woman who describes herself as "the mother of all misfortune". He is supported by an exceptionally strong cast, led very powerfully and movingly by Clare Higgins.

Hecuba, in this version, is Greek tragedy at its rawest. It should be seen as a lesson in the potential for brutality in mankind that still exists today. As such, it ought to be compulsory viewing.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher