Friday, May 27, 2005

Don’t be fooled by the disheveled hair and sooty gown.Hecuba (Vanessa Redgrave) is still every inch a queen — aloof, remote — somehow holding herself apart from the other enslaved women even when she is rolling on the ground, seized and alone in her grief.

The former queen of Troy may be a captive of the Greeks, but she still has her royal blood and the ability to persuade her enemy to wreak a gruesome revenge on the man who killed her son. She holds sway over the other Trojan women as well, beseeching them to use their limited resources to come to her aid. For a supposedly ineffective slave, Hecuba proves to have daunting sources of power.

The take-home lesson from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stark production of Euripides’ tragedy is: Don’t mess with women, especially women who have been enslaved as a result of war. They don’t want pity or compassion, they want revenge for the humiliations they have suffered.

Freedom would be nice, but blood lust comes first.

Written around 424 B.C., “Hecuba” vividly charts the eternal, trickle-down effects of war, how no one is spared the atrocities of the battlefield. War hardens men — and women — and makes casualties of us all, especially in the casual cruelties we inflict on each other without forethought.

In “Hecuba” (a new, lean and mean translation has been provided by British poet Tony Harrison), the setting is the aftermath of the Trojan War. The Greeks are victors, the city is in smoldering ruins, and the men have mostly been slaughtered. The captured women of Troy wait on the harsh seacoast of Thrace to be taken to the foreign lands of Greece.

Amid a canopy of army tents, a Chorus of Trojan women (Charlotte Allam, Jane Arden, Rosalie Craig, Maisie Dimbleby, Barbara Gellhorn, Aileen Gonsalves, Michele Moran, Sasha Oakley, Katherine O’Shea, Judith Paris, Natalie Turner-Jones, Sarah Quist) accept their fate with varying degrees of bitterness and outrage. At first, they seem to be able to do nothing but lift their voices to the sky — in scenes of astonishing beauty, these women rail and berate their circumstances through majestic choral song that is accompanied by primitive drumbeats. The songs become almost a force of nature, gaining in strength and control as the play progresses, growing from mournful chants to eerie incantations.

Hecuba, however, gives action to their songs. It is she alone who can persuade her captor, Agamemnon (Malcolm Tierney), to help her avenge the murder of her son Polydorus (Matthew Douglas), who has been slain for his gold by a supposed family friend, Polymestor (Darrell D’Silva). Hecuba, by this time, is nearly out of her mind with grief, having in the first part of the play been forced to hand over her daughter Polyxena (Lydia Leonard) as a sacrifice to the dead war hero Achilles.

“I’ll be glad to get into my grave,” she says as she watches her daughter, her “little bird” go off to her death with dignity and bravery befitting a princess.

Their parting scene crackles with exquisite pain as Polyxena embraces freedom and Hecuba more woe.

The men in the play inflict all sorts of barbarous brutalities, but they are not nearly as vivid as the effects of their deeds. The cruelties are almost sadistic, but what stay with you in “Hecuba” are the almost painterly descriptions of Polyxena’s death and Hecuba’s inventory of the pains she has endured. This is poetry at its most visual and wrenching.

Intellectually, you cannot find much fault with the male performances, especially Mr. Tierney’s canny Agamemnon and Mr. Douglas’ ghostly Polydorus, unhappily suspended between this life and the next.

The acting is solid, but not inspiring. The same could be said for Miss Redgrave’s Hecuba. Her diction and bearing are impressive, but there is an icy, cold core that the audience is not welcome to penetrate.

Emotional release comes through the Chorus, which is excellent throughout. As conceived by designer Es Devlin, the Chorus, in vegetable-dyed gowns in lapis and turquoise hues, seems an organic part of the earth and sky, belonging to nature rather than the foreign soil upon which its members find themselves. They bring a spiritual and physical intimacy to a production of “Hecuba” that is largely distant and enslaved by ideas rather than genuine feeling.


WHAT: “Hecuba” by Euripides

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 12.

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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