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October 06, 2004

Euripides' Hecuba at the Donmar Warehouse

Posted by David Wootton

Euripides' Hecuba
Directed by Jonathan Kent; Translated by Frank McGuinness
Donmar Warehouse, London
9th September - 13th November 2004

Professor David Wootton will be writing regularly for the Social Affairs Unit.

What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
[Hamlet, Act II, scene ii]

Euripides is all the fashion at the moment: the National recently put on Iphigenia at Aulis (directed by Katie Mitchell) and the RSC is shortly to produce its own Hecuba (with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role). This, of course, is because Euripides is understood to be an anti-war playwright; anyone who thinks that it wasn't obvious from the beginning that the Iraq war would go badly only needs to calculate the lead time required to commission a new translation and get it onto the London stage to realise that London theatre managers have a better grasp of the likely outcome of wars in the Middle East than do the present residents of the White House and No. 10 Downing Street. This production makes its topicality apparent: a woman in a window-cleaner's cradle is, when you sit down in your seat, busy writing the names of the dead (but in which conflict you can't tell) on a black, blank, warehouse wall which is the unvarying backdrop to the action, recalling both the Vietnam war memorial in Arlington cemetery, and Berlin's Jewish Museum. The programme contains an essay by Matthew Parris on "the parallels between Hecuba and our latest wars".

The scene throughout is a beach, with water. In an extraordinary coup de théatre, the play begins when Polydorus appears from under the water, dripping and announcing he is dead. I've never seen an underwater entrance before, and it isn't in the stageplay, or, of course, in Euripides (the designer is Paul Brown); but the water isn't there just for that. The Greeks are waiting for a wind to set sail for home (later Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena will be sacrificed off-stage to raise the wind, as Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, was sacrificed to raise the wind to set out for Troy); so the sea is central to the plot. But, as the performance goes on, dry land comes to signal civilization; entering the water means entering a world of nightmare horrors. Polydorus himself has been murdered by his host, his father's friend, Polymestor, greedy for the gold sent with Polydorus by the now-dead Priam. Polydorus's murder breaks a fundamental taboo, for a guest should be safe under his host's roof. Even a character like Agamemnon (Euripides presents the Greek generals as democratic politicians, interested only in preserving the good opinion of their troops) recognizes that this is a sacred principle, perhaps the only one he would hesitate to sacrifice to expediency.

The play lasts eighty minutes, but it feels like a lifetime — and I mean this as praise, not criticism. In the first half (in terms of time: there is no intermission), everything that can go wrong to Hecuba goes wrong. Her city has been destroyed and her husband killed; she is a slave; her daughter is taken off to be sacrificed; her son (although she does not know it) is floating towards her in the waves, questing burial. In the second half, Hecuba and the (invisible) women of Troy take revenge on Polymestor, dismembering his young sons and gouging out his eyes (bits of the dead boys are carried around in the sort of clear plastic bags in which you carry away meat from Smithfield). There is an explicit feminist message here — women can do everything men can do. (The 'modernity' of Euripides is profoundly puzzling.) Hecuba begins as a victim, and ends as a perpetrator; Polymestor, who begins as a perpetrator and ends as a victim, prophecies doom for Agamemnon — he can foresee the day when the wheel will turn again. What makes the play so painful is not just that it requires you to sympathise with the grief of a distraught mother; it (particularly in Clare Higgins' performance as Hecuba) also makes it impossible for you to reject her when you see the results of her bloody revenge, including the slaughter of the innocents.

There's a point in this cycle of violence when I think the only appropriate response is to wish you could escape from the theatre. But the Donmar is like a cockpit; you can almost touch the actors; you wouldn't be surprised to find yourself being splashed with water or blood. You can't even stand back from the action. And Clare Higgins, on stage continuously in the role of Hecuba, is simply magnificent, never striking a false note, always convincing you of the reality of her experience, devastated and devastating in her grief. In Hamlet the notion that an actor might weep for Hecuba seems to Hamlet profoundly puzzling; with a start, I realised half way through the performance that my wife, sitting next to me, was weeping, not quite silently.

This production is the polar opposite of Katie Mitchell's production of Iphigenia at Aulis at the National (reviewed by Kenneth Minogue for the SAU). There, on a vast proscenium stage, a short play was lengthened by endless business — when the royal party arrive at Aulis, for example, suitcases are carried on and piled up in an endless succession. There a numerous chorus kept drawing attention to themselves — dancing, stumbling, dropping their handbags. Here the chorus is a single woman who speaks our thoughts, and a singer suspended above us. There there was the noise of megaphones and helicopters; here (though the actors are in modern dress, and the wall of remembrance is there) we are on a timeless Mediterranean beach. There, Katie Mitchell used her trademark slow-motion effect to disrupt the action; here it seems impossible to escape the onward rush of events. I rather liked the National production of Iphigenia at Aulis (which I saw on a preview night), and some reviewers liked it too. My wife hated it, complaining it was a stultifying mixture of tedium and hysteria. I think, indeed, that is why I liked it (it reminded me of Sundays in the vicarage in my childhood); but I have no doubt that this production is infinitely superior -- there is neither tedium nor hysteria at the Donmar, just grief, horror, and an authentic catharsis.

One more comparison seems appropriate. In McGuinness's translation the chorus asks "Is there no end for suffering?" This reminded me of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, another Grand Guignol revenge tragedy of a play. Towards the end Davey (an innocent caught up in horrific events) asks "Oh, will it never end? Will it never fecking end?" And he's answered: "It fecking won't, d'you know." McDonagh is the only living playwright who writes tragedies (admittedly enormously funny tragedies, which have you laughing aloud as you recognize your own world performed on the stage) comparable to those of Euripides. There weren't many jokes at the Donmar, but we were unquestionably back in McDonagh's world, a world that for so long has also been an Irish world, where catastrophe is inherited by each generation from the one before. In his most recent play, The Pillowman, an extraordinary and powerful piece whose genre is difficult to describe (you need to imagine a detective story written by Kafka), his central theme is also that of Euripides: how victims become perpetrators in their turn, ensuring that the cycle of cruelty and violence is endless. Had Bush. Blair, Wolfowitz and co. seen any of these plays they might have hesitated over their naive belief that a whole society could be rescued from its past simply by killing or capturing a cruel dictator.

It's a magnificent, brilliant, wonderful production. Go and see it. You'll be shocked and horrified from the beginning to the end. Delighted too, if that's the right word.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History, University of York.


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