Hecuba

Euripides
Lazarus Theatre Company
New Diorama
(2010)

Production photo

No translator is credited for this version of Euripides' tragedy so one presumes that it is the company's own reworking of one that is out of copyright. My impression was that there had been some quite heavy cutting, especially of the longest speeches, concentrating attention of the essential elements of the story.

Six years ago Jonathan Kent's production at the Donmar of Frank McGuinness's version reduced the chorus of Trojan women to one; here we have a chorus of thirteen and Ricky Dukes's production makes full use of them. They rarely speak in unison, the lines mainly divided between them, indeed they are given individual names, but their movements as a group (choreographed by Rita Whitton and Dukes) together with atmospheric singing adds a powerful extra layer of emotion.

The play is given a prologue in which a singer appears to be entertaining the Trojan court before the fall of Troy, the destruction of which is represented through their horrified reactions before they are plunged into darkness.

Out of the darkness rises the black-clad ghost of Polydorus, youngest child of the Troy's dead King Priam, looking for his mother Hecuba. So Euripides's play begins. We now discover Hecuba and the women of Troy as captives of the Greeks reduced to being slaves while around them circle the dark figures not just of Polydorus but of others fallen in the war.

This is a play whose long verse speeches can be a challenge to contemporary actors. Douglas Rutter's excellent delivery of the opening speech, describing how he has been murdered by the man who was supposed to protected him when he was sent away to escape the war, sets a standard that is not always maintained.

When actors allow themselves time to make the thoughts their own, there is both sense and clarity. Natalie Lesser's Hecuba is a strong performance, but she looks extraordinarily young and underplays the viciousness of the revengeful vixen that she becomes. Hers is too ordinary and formal a grief. We miss the harrowed face of the aging mother that has seen the deaths in battle of her sons, the destruction of all she held dear, the killing of her husband and now not only faces the sacrifice of her youngest daughter but discovers the one child she thought sure to survive has been murdered.

Hecuba is clearly spoken but Jasmyn Banks's charming Polyxena, the daughter who must be sacrificed to the ghost of Greek Achilles, sometimes allows emotion to rush her speech, leaving no time to feel what she is saying, while Hugh Chipperfield's pragmatically hard-hearted and unembarrassable Odysseus seems over-conscious that he is speaking verse. Herald Talthybius (Evan Regueira), however, delivers the speech describing the sacrifice of Polyxena with thought and feeling.

Simon Wegrzyn as Polydorus' murderer Polymestor, tricked and blinded by revengeful Hecuba, is made to deliver his long outcry against her largely facing upstage, which actually helps the actor for his warmly lit unmarked back ensures we feel no pity for him despite his raging. Stephen McLeod's Agamemnon is gentlemanly and courteous, not so complex as Euripides wrote him, the result perhaps of what seems a certain streamlining of the text - but I may be wrong. I have not seen a script.

What does emerge is a clear outline of the story, beautifully mounted. The choral work and movement, the imaginative lighting (by Heather Doole), sometimes just using the cold light of pocket torches, beautifully modelling shapes to emerge from a swirl of smoke, and the use of music are gorgeous. The men in black modern clothing seem contemporary but the women are all in long white dresses, clean and untouched by the destruction of their city, a Victorian idea of the classical which moves them into an unreal time.

This does not feel like a modern or an ancient war zone and when Agamemnon asks 'Grant us a safe journey. Let us leave our pain behind' and the women go off to the boats that will take them away from Troy singing a wordless threnody, this production is given a calm closure. As Hecuba is left alone there is little to suggest the fates that lie in wait for her or Agamemnon that have already been foretold in Polymestor's ravings, but Dukes has given us a fresh and engaging interpretation that always looks good.

Run ends 28th August 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton