The Royal Shakespeare Company may have fired the director and promoted the poet for the American dates in D.C. and New York of “Hecuba,” but the harrowing lyricism inherent in Euripides’ account of the deposed Trojan queen’s bloody vengeance remains oddly muted. Retooled by translator Tony Harrison after original director Laurence Boswell’s London staging was roundly dismissed earlier this year, the misconceived production is stymied in part by Vanessa Redgrave’s peculiar performance, drifting between dementia and calculation, and giving us blank Beckettian detachment in place of impassioned anguish.
Redgrave’s return to a New York stage two years after her triumph in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is made even more disappointing by comparisons between the burning, majestic emotions of that production and the drained power of this “Hecuba” — a potentially devastating reflection on war fueled by greed, on victory, defeat and empowering bitterness, here rendered for much of its duration as academic diatribe.
With her haunted, black-rimmed eyes framed by a shock of white hair, Redgrave’s grief-possessed Hecuba seems almost like an extension of her ghostly, morphine-addled Mary Tyrone. But while the character’s losses here are as epic as they are personal, her suffering seems far more remote than in the O’Neill play.
Much of the fault clearly lies with poet-dramatist Harrison’s reconceptualization of Euripides’ play as political screed and opera, undermining foundations that — despite being molded from historical legend — are those of raw, earthbound drama. (Boswell’s name has been removed, and no director is credited; press materials indicate only that the version was “written by and developed for its U.S. engagements” by Harrison.)
The writer draws contemporary parallels most pointedly via references to “the Greek coalition” that brought about the fall of Troy, making a tragic victim not only of its former queen but of countless women robbed of their husbands, children and homes. Perhaps the most direct connection to current conflicts comes from the blinded Polymestor (Darrell D’Silva), who rails against “these terrorists from Troy who have destroyed me.”
Given the political nature of Euripides’ play, the impulse to foreground its modernity seems entirely natural, echoed somberly in Es Devlin’s set — a hillside ringed with tiered army tents, like a military internment camp for refugee prisoners. But Harrison’s at times awkward mix of declamatory speech with more colloquial language, coupled with an approach from Redgrave that’s more intellectual than visceral, makes the play feel stiff and mannered.
The drama starts arrestingly enough, with the curtain rising — accompanied by an ominous ambient hum — on the ghost of royal son Polydorus (Matthew Douglas). He stands like a tribal mud figure, solemnly recounting the deaths of his warrior brother Hector, his father, King Priam, and his own murder at the hands of trusted Thracian friend Polymestor.
Polydorus now hovers over his mother, Hecuba, captured with the other Trojan women by the Greek victors and destined for enslavement. Foretelling that Hecuba, already bereaved many times over, will learn that day of his death, and will also be faced with the loss of her daughter Polyxena (Lydia Leonard), Polydorus craves only a proper burial from his mother.
Such an introduction seems to herald wrenching drama to come, but from the moment Redgrave’s spent, physically crushed Hecuba crawls onto the stage through a tent flap, the cold disconnect between the tragedy’s lacerating pathos and its unemotional, Anglicized execution becomes apparent. When Redgrave’s Hecuba mouths the words “I am destroyed,” this supposed embodiment of maternal grief conveys only dulled resignation.
The problem is exacerbated by Harrison’s overuse of the chorus, entrusted here not with interstitial commentary but with shouldering the chief burdens of narration. While Mick Sands’ music is stirringly sung and not without a certain liturgical beauty, the 12-member chorus is as overly earnest and urgently emotive in its accounts of the action as the approach is dry and distant elsewhere.
In their artfully tattered, ethno-chic tunics, the women seem like Anatevkan villagers who’ve stumbled into the wrong musical. And Harrison saddles them with lyrics that defy sung presentation: “Everywhere you heard them scream you heard the savage yells and whoops of slaughter-glutted, sex-starved troops: ‘Let’s finish it off and fuck off home.’ ” Uh, OK.
In isolated moments, the production does hint at the power and complexity it might have had with a more passionate interpretation. Hecuba’s final moments with her “loyal little bird” Polyxena are given acute poignancy by Leonard’s proud, noble performance, choosing to die rather than live as a slave.
And Malcolm Tierney’s Agamemnon is a savvy, cool-headed ruler, not averse to questions of diplomacy and justice despite having a victor’s right to ignore them, yet visibly anxious to be free of the concerns of the prison camp’s aggrieved women.
The decision to have the smarmy, unfeeling messenger Odysseus (D’Silva again) deliver his lines in what seems to be a clumsy Texan accent feels heavy-handedly obvious.
A formidable stage presence even in a role that seems a far from perfect fit, Redgrave becomes more persuasive as the prone, keening Hecuba gives way to the sly strategist. Waving her arms over her head to underline her prisoner status, she appears like a revivalist humbling herself before a pitiless god, revealing subtle flashes of her former regal command as she negotiates in vain for Polyxena to be spared and then successfully for her right to exact revenge upon Polymestor when her son’s body is discovered.
Harrison elects to play the violence offstage, which somewhat diminishes the horror, though the sight of Redgrave with bloodied hands wheeling in a cart carrying Polymestor’s two murdered sons, trailed by their stumbling father with his eyes freshly gouged out, has an undeniable gravitas.
While D’Silva’s outraged ranting feels overwrought in the muffled context of this production, Hecuba’s transformation from victim to cruel avenger suggests the gut-level impact that’s missing. Sadly, it’s not enough to redeem a production that, overall, is a hollow misfire.