REVIEW: Hecuba at the RSC

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It’s a tale of two battles at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the moment. While Henry V gives the French a hiding at Agincourt at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an ancient and stranger war story unfolds at the Swan Theatre in Hecuba.

Writer Marina Carr and director Erica Whyman have taken the story of Hecuba, as written by Euripides in 424BC, and reworked it considerably.

The Greeks (Achaeans) have taken the city of Troy following the gruesome Trojan War. The play opens in the grisly aftermath: Hecuba (a brilliantly commanding performance from Derbhle Crotty), queen of Troy, is sat on her husband’s throne, the slain King Priam; blood pools around her feet and she is surrounded by the dismembered limbs, torsos and heads of her murdered children — even her baby grandson is brought in, his head smashed like an “eggshell”.

The queen’s two daughter’s Cassandra (the gloating cocksure prophetess, gloriously played by Nadia Albina) and Polyxena (a heartfelt performance from Amy McAllister) and her youngest son Polydorus are all she has left in the world. But the future gets ever more bleak when conqueror Agamemnon (a muscular Ray Fearon dazzles as the oafish military man) takes the remaining women and children captive and ships them off to the Achaean camp — where superstition demands a human sacrifice be made…

While Euripides’ original evolves into a story of Hecuba’s dramatic revenge, Carr’s becomes a poignant and gut-wrenching account of war, bereavement and survival.

The costumes are marvellous — a richly textured column dress for Hecuba, body-con armour for Agamemnon — but the set is spartan. Instead words and music ‘dress’ the stage and action: the horror and gore is conjured in the audience’s mind by Carr’s exquisitely imagistic and poetical verse; while scene changes are punctuated by singer/handmaiden Lara Stubbs’ plaintive, and sublimely otherworldly vocals.

But it’s in the dialogue that language is used most uniquely: as the characters speak, they also voice their inner thoughts, adding asides and comments for the audience’s ears only. The effect gives an astounding insight to the psychology of the characters, but also adds a huge dollop of humour into this most distressing story, especially as much of what is spoken is delivered in the vernacular. So, for example, as Agamemnon talks formally to Hecuba, he also goes on about how much he’d like to shag her.

As a human, a mum and a witness to the refugee crisis, I found this two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old story about the horror of war delivered a painfully profound comment on our world today, and is, excuse the cliché, an absolute must-see.

Hecuba at the Swan Theatre, runs until 17th October