Numerous tragedies, several of them all but unwatchable, befall the characters in “Hecuba,” the Euripides play that seems suddenly to be the British theater’s classical text of choice. (Vanessa Redgrave headlines a Royal Shakespeare Company version next spring.) But here’s a minor one that can be spoken of openly, without having to avert one’s gaze: For all its commitment and ferocity, not least from a blazing Clare Higgins in the title role, Jonathan Kent’s Donmar staging of the play is never once moving. Steeped though the evening may be in what one character describes as a “sorrow beyond sorrow,” it nonetheless leaves you cold.
The problem may simply be a production that comes across as too calculatedly chic, given the rawness of the grief at hand. Kent certainly knows how to deliver arresting stage images: the opening sight of ghostly Polydorus (an androgynous Eddie Redmayne, seen in London’s “The Goat”), Hecuba’s slaughtered son, appearing unexpectedly up out of the water, catches the aud unawares while prompting thoughts of a Greek-style wet T-shirt competition. But much of the time, one feels the production playing games with the spectator, much as the gods in Euripides’ view of things do with humankind; it’s so busy being clever that it doesn’t really connect.
That’s never the fault of a terrifically welcome leading lady, with Higgins here returning to the London stage for the first time since her breakout perf in “Vincent in Brixton” took her, deservedly, to Broadway. Her voice deeper than usual, as if to match eyes flashing in fury, Higgins cuts a hard-scrabbling figure as the captive Trojan queen turned murderer in response to the murders she has known.
Commendably, Higgins never over-italicizes emotion for effect — her dryness is not the same as the production’s — nor does she turn Frank McGuinness’ brusque new translation into an exercise in rhetoric.
Instead, she’s the unsentimental victim of — and participant in — a cycle of carnage and devastation that can’t fail to resonate today: Think Beslan, to name just one grievous location out of many. Watching “Hecuba,” one is reminded just how quickly civilization is short-circuited, a point reinforced by the final image of the scuttling, newly sullied heroine digging a grave like some mad dog.
That moment flings Higgins onto a steeply raked, dune-like set from Paul Brown that must pose its own challenges for the cast. For virtually the first time in my experience of the Donmar, various performers are inaudible or indistinct or both, as if so engaged with traversing a difficult stage that they had forgotten vocally to fill the house. (Playing a one-person Chorus, Susan Engel sounds oddly muted.)
As the primary recipient of the queen’s rage, Finbar Lynch’s blinded Polymestor must grope his way back into the footlights for the curtain call, his fate one of just several events that links “Hecuba” to the bleakest, blackest passages of Shakespeare and Beckett.
There’s sufficient primal fury to the play for it not to need what feels like padding. Eve Polycarpou is heard intermittently ululating an original score (courtesy of Macedonian composer Nikola Kodjabashia) to little affective purpose.
And for a short evening — the production runs less than 90 minutes — “Hecuba” does drag in a way that this summer’s significantly longer Euripides reclamation at the National, “Iphigenia at Aulis,” never did. In that production, the modern appurtenances possessed the sort of sting that, in “Hecuba,” merely emerges as self-conscious: the sizzling of the lights, for instance, that accompanies the arrival of any of a succession of Greek dignitaries in suits (among them Tim Pigott-Smith as an ominously black-gloved Agamemnon).
Christopher Shutt’s sound design delivers an aural landscape of eerie half-breaths and a pulsating heart. But such environmental triggers can be no substitute for the heart-stopping sense of a centuries-old play reaching across the ages that on this occasion feels oddly blocked.