The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 5th October, 2015
New adaptations of ancient Greek tragedies are all the rage at the moment, with the Oresteia and Bakkhai being extremely successful down in London. Now comes Marina Carr’s retelling of the story of Hecuba, wife of Priam – loser of the Trojan War.
Carr employs an unusual device – we are accustomed to having narrators to describe what is not staged – but here she has the characters narrate to each other’s faces, reporting conversations while they are having them, and so Hecuba tells us what Agamemnon is saying and vice versa. It’s all a bit odd to begin with, but you soon become accustomed to it, get caught up in it.
The tale is one of unrelenting horror but in true Greek tradition, it’s all kept off-stage. Instead we imagine the butchered bodies, the bashed-in bonces of babies, in more vivid detail than any shlock film director could put on the screen. The characters endure such grief and misery – on both sides of the conflict. Hecuba has lost just about everyone (those who remain will be taken from her during the course of the play!) and Agamemnon grieves for the daughter he had to sacrifice in order that the wind might change – Ah, religion! It brings no comfort to anyone in this extreme situation. Of course, there are parallels to be made with situations going on today: war crimes and atrocities visited on the vulnerable, but I am reluctant to make them. Carr’s language ennobles both the doer and the deed and the barbarians of today don’t deserve such grand and poetic language.
Derbhle Crotty is spellbinding as the ousted Queen of Troy, in terms of expressing her own agony and reporting the reactions of others. There is dignity among the bloodshed, poise and resilience amid terrible losses. Crotty is matched by Ray Fearon’s Agamemnon, the conquering King. He is more than the perpetrator of barbaric cruelty: he is an honourable soldier and a family man touched by his own tragedy. Together the pair are electrifying.
Nadia Albina is a sassy Cassandra, disowned for her prophetic gifts; also striking is Amy McAllister as doomed daughter Polyxena. Chu Omambala impresses as Odysseus and there is some haunting singing from Lara Stubbs.
Director Erica Whyman keeps us hooked through this onslaught of horrific acts by keeping the intensity levels high – we don’t get an interval so there is no let-up in the barrage of sickening images we are made to picture for ourselves. By the end, I am a little punch-drunk and stagger out, a little like blinded Polymestor (Edmund Kingsley) although I wouldn’t be seen dead in his lemon yellow pyjama suit.