in a new version
written by Marina Carr
Directed by Erika Whyman
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Friday 18th September 2015
David Ajao – Nepotolemus
Nadia Albina – Cassandra
Derbhle Crotty – Hecuba (pictured)
Ray Fearon – Agamemnon
Edmund Kingsley – Polymestor
Amy McAllister – Polyxena
Chu Omambala – Odysseus
Lara Stubbs – Xenia/Singer
Director – Erica Whyman
Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting – Charles Balfour
Music – Isobel Waller-Bridge
Sound – Andrew Franks
Movement – Ayse Tashkiran
This is Hecuba by Marina Carr, after the play by Euripides not a translation or a new version. It’s also somehow more Greek than most of the currently fashionable versions of Greek drama. I didn’t know whether to put it as contemporary drama or classic drama on this blog. I’m putting it in both. The default with Greek plays in 2015 is no interval. The default is also to work on the chorus, with diverse modern dress characters, and extensive choreography.
There’s no chorus here. Unlike Bakkhai, the last we saw, they do not play all the characters with three actors, as Euripides would have. That’s because it’s not as Euripides wrote it, yet you leave with the feeling that this really was Greek drama. The action, the horror is reported by the actors, not played out. The props consist of one chair, one candle, two bowls of water and one knife. The central long ritual slaughter of Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter, is done by Agamemnon, but he does not even touch the knife. Odysseus stands still holding the cruel curved blade behind him.
Marina Carr has changed the story radically, shifted some slaughter from Hecuba to Agamemnon, shifted focus so that it is all about the effect of war on women. Hecuba is Queen of Troy, and it opens just after the defeat. She describes the dismembered bodies of her sons and grandsons around her, one small child has had his head smashed against a wall, broken like an eggshell. The head of her husband, King Priam is there too but there is no body. She is accompanied by her daughters, Polyxena and Cassandra. Agamemnon, the Greek conqueror, arrives, tall, muscled, still demanding Helen of Troy, the cause of the war, the justification for the war. As Marina Carr points out in the programme, Helen of Troy was the mythical Weapon of Mass Destruction.
Hecuba: Helen does not exist. You made her up. You needed a reason to take it all. There is no Helen. There never was a Helen.
Hecuba (Derbhle Crotty) and Agamemnon (Ray Fearon)
The Greeks are the barbarians, pulled together from disparate groupings, tribes, if you like. Spartans, Mycenaeans, Achaneans, Ithacans, Troy is the destroyed urban civilisation. Nowadays casting is usually colour blind. Not here. The three Greek males, Agamemnon, Odysseus and Nepotolemus (son of the dead Achilles) are all played by black actors. All the Trojans are white. The divide is clarified (on somewhat dodgy ground for the PC brigade, perhaps). Marina Carr is Irish, and both Hecuba and Polyxena are played by Irish actors (though they keep the accent down to a mild spicing). The barbaric Greeks are put in their place:
Hecuba: You’re not a literate culture, are you? You don’t have an alphabet. You don’t read, write.
The quality of Marina Carr’s writing is central. The description of violence replaces the expected 2010s buckets of stage blood. No blood to be seen here at all, and the play is all the more chilling for it. It is innovative writing too, and hypnotically entrancing. Characters tell us what other characters (who are present) said in reported speech. ‘This happened, he tells me.’ ‘She spat at me and said this, he says.’ It’s strange, and when they break into direct speech suddenly and address the other actor, it leaps out at you in an extremely powerful way. The language is mainly formal, with sudden slashes of vernacular. The adjective ‘fucking’ is used rarely, always jumps out at you, and is used vehemently and is always absolutely appropriate.
Because the text is central, the wonderful delivery is the other factor. The actors declaim, bring the audience into their confidence. Derblhe Crotty is Hecuba, middle-aged, regal, devastated, finally drawn to the despised conqueror. Ray Fearon as Agamemnon competes for best performance of 2015 for me, and there have been some mighty ones this year. He was Mark Anthony in the RSC’s all-African Julius Caesar in 2012. Chu Omambala as Odysseus gets an odd grey kiltted costume, but it covers up references to his bandy legs in the text. Nadia Albina as Cassandra and David Ajao as Nepotolemus have been in The Merchant of Venice and Othello this year. Throughout, everyone’s articulation is crystal clear.
There are intervals where Lara Stubbs as Xenia / The Singer connects action with haunting Greek operatic song. A memorable vocalist.
Hecuba, Cassandra in background
Memorable line: Society can’t run when the women are unhappy.
We saw a preview, only the second performance. I don’t seek out previews, but we book the first possible day of bookings, and tend to take plays early in their run (knowing we’ll be booking more elsewhere later). It was a case of twinning this with Henry V – we usually choose an evening, stay over, then take in an afternoon performance the next day and drive home. So we book in pairs and this matched well in times. The RSC has a commendably short reduced price preview period before press night. It’s considered wrong to review previews, because the production might be tweaked and bed down differently once an audience is present. Hecuba was mentioned as one of the must-see productions of Autumn 2015 ten days ago, before it had even opened. The word was already out based on the writer and cast. The word was correct too. I get the impression the RSC is so well rehearsed that previews are pretty well the final version. Actually, in the last couple of years, seeing various productions twice, I get the feeling there’s a delightful tension about early productions and sometimes you get the best of all. So no negatives, no reason not to post a review.
Agamemnon, with Odysseus in background
As you guessed from the quotes, I bought the play script on the way out. The cast list humorously says ‘soldiers: thousands of them” but also ‘Hecuba’s women: five of them’ so maybe a mini-chorus was envisaged and economized upon.
It’s another play I’d love to see again. The script reminds me of how very fine the writing is.
Online pronunciation guides say ‘My-sen-ay-en’ for Mycenaean, as they do in this play. They also say this is the “American” pronunciation. It’s what I said aloud in my head for years reading about Greek history, but I was roundly corrected when in Greece going round museums. There is no soft ‘c’ in Greek, which is why the current production of The Bacchae is written as Bakkhai. I was told it was ‘Mik-uhn- ay-en’ and on investigation, that’s correct. Odd. Deliberate choice? I would have expected someone to correct it. However, we discussed it afterwards and the consensus was that such a majority assume it’s a soft ‘c’ that it would have been pedantic to pronounce it with k.