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Higgins transforms a Greek tragedy into a classic

Review by David Munro

HECUBA was not a happy lady. She had lost her husband and most of her sons in the fall of Troy and was now a slave to the conquering Greeks together with her daughter Polyxena.

Her other daughter was maitresse en titre to Agamemnon, the C-in-C of the Greek army, and was apparently unable to do anything to alleviate her mother and sister’s lot.

But you have to be a Greek scholar to disentangle the relationships and attitudes spawned by the Trojan War. Either that or a classic Greek dramatist, such as Euripides, who wrote a slew of plays about it mostly based on the theme of revenge.

Of these, his dramatisation of the last days of Hecuba is one of the most famous and Frank McGuiness’s new version of it is a powerful play.

He has set it on the sea coast of Thrace, where the action unfolds , uncluttered by sets other than a tank representing the sea, in which the characters paddle, appear from, fall in or wash themselves throughout the course of the play.

For an hour and a half, one watches Hecuba having to give up her daughter as a human sacrifice to a dead Greek; finding her last son dead in the sea and wreaking her revenge on Polymestor, the King of Thrace, into whose care her son had been committed.

As you would imagine, the success or otherwise of the piece depends on the actress playing Hecuba.

Claire Higgins, in the role, is a more than worthy successor to all the great tragediennes who have preceded her in the role.

She brings a humanity to the character which is heart rending and although she is burdened with having to demonstrate her grief in a series of speeches which would be risible if badly delivered, she makes them seem genuine and from the heart.

She is a mother who never forgets she has been a queen, and who is frustrated by her inability to save her daughter.

The discovery of her dead son turns her into a hard, cold calculating woman and Claire Higgins makes the metamorphosis from helplessness into purpose both convincing and chilling.

She makes you feel that the desire for revenge has acted as a catharsis and enabled her to channel her grief into her resolve to be revenged.

Her encounter with Polymestor and his children, when she reverts to being a sociable and friendly woman, is a masterpiece of duplicity and she managed to convince me that the character was acting, a little gem of art concealing Art.

The ending of the play, after Polymestor has relayed the prophesy that she will become a bitch, where she falls, dog-like onto all fours and scrabbles the sand in a manner is horrifying, yet a fitting climax to an overwhelming evening.

The rest of the cast, although good, are mere sounding boards for her grief and fury.

The Chorus, so beloved by Greek dramatists, is subsumed into a maid-companion who mumbles a commentary on the action from time to time and played, rather inaudibly, by Susan Engel.

Polyxena is strongly played by Kate Fleetwood as a younger version of her mother, with all the strengths and weaknesses well delineated.

Among the male characters, Tim Pigott-Smith, as Agamemnon, and Finbar Lynch, as Polymester, make the strongest claim to male supremacy.

The latter is particularly effective when he is exposed as a thieving, murderous hypocrite, and pronounces the prophecies of doom on Agamemnon and Hecuba.

Nicholas Day does what he can with his scene of rejection of Hecuba, when she turns to him to save her daughter and manages to give the impression of the sly, self serving foxy man as described by Homer.

One of the more tender moments in the play, if it can be described as such, was the description of the death of Polyxena, by Alfred Burke, as the old Greek servant, Talthiybius, which was beautifully delivered and very affecting.

As Polydorus, the murdered son, Eddie Redmayne arises from the sea and bewails his lot and spends the rest of the evening as an inanimate corpse (no reflection on his performance which was good in so far as it went).

The action was interspersed by songs that also commented obliquely on the action, which were beautifully sung by Eve Polycarpou to the haunting music of Nikola Kodjabahia.

The costumes were modern, suits for Ulysses and Polymestor; uniform for Agamemnon and semi-Greek blouses and skirts for the women, which fitted in with the semi-contemporary dialogue of Frank McGuiness.

The setting of the sea-shore was by Paul Brown and, with the water and the sound effects of Christopher Shutt, quite plausible.

I am never very happy about direction in Greek Classical Drama, as the original was static and declamatory, which doesn’t always fit well with modern naturalistic movements and style.

Jonathan Kent, aided by the new version, managed to balance the two well and his direction, while firm, was unobtrusive, although one felt he had control of the action throughout.

I particularly liked the touch in the final curtain where Agamemnon helps a blinded Polymestor to take his bows and helps him fumbling off stage.

An amusing conceit that left one wondering whether he had actually fallen victim to Miss Higgin’s revenge.

With a performance such as hers, one can never be quite sure where reality ends and acting begins, but I do know it is a performance you would be a fool to miss; it, like the play, is a classic.

Hecuba, by Euripides, in a new version by Frank McGuiness.
Director, Jonathan Kent; Designer, Paul Brown; Lighting, Mark Henderson; Sound, Christopher Schutt; Music, Nikola Kodjabashia.
CAST: Claire Higgins; Tim Piggot-Smith; Finbar Lynch; Nicholas Day; Alfred Burke; Eddie Redmayne; Susan Engel; Kate Fleetwood; Eve Polycarpou; Connor Peppard; Michael Selwood; Callum Bradley; Jack McGinn; Adam Arnold; Stephen Vijasin.
The Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX.
9 – Nov 13, 2004.
Evenings: Mon – Sat 7.30pm
Matinee: Thur 2.30pm.
Box Office:- 0870 0606624

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