Hecuba as never seen before

The endless legacy of the Greeks is per- haps best summed up in the playwright Marina Carr’s own words: “When we write tragedy, we write tragedy because Troy is in rubble”. And Troy is certainly in rubble in her new adaptation of Euripides’ Hecuba, which closed on Saturday at the RSC. More to the point, the people are in ruins and it is hard to know who’s the winner of Carr’s version of the Trojan War.

Staged on a tarnished reflective floor with a backdrop of moveable mirrors, Erica Whyman’s production is stark, most of the scenery and rubble verbal: the play opens with Derbhle Crotty’s powerful Hecuba sitting on a bare throne in a largely empty room, conjur- ing the bodies of her fallen sons with her voice alone. It’s the voices that make this play; a sort of verbal punctuation happens with an endless “I say, he says” which has the charac- ters speak their own lines, the lines of other characters, and describe their experience of events. When Hecuba says that the head of her husband Priam is at her feet, you believe it.

The rollicking energy of Carr’s dialogue is enthralling. Agamemnon (Ray Fearon) and Hecuba demonstrate their conflict by each speaking the other’s lines. The movement of the actors is often different to their description. A particularly striking moment comes as Cassandra declares “I take my sister’s hand” while the two daughters of Priam stand on opposite sides of the stage, staring at each other, totally isolated in their suffering.

The violent interiority of the play’s dialogue is the true masterstroke, Whyman’s direction expertly rendering every single character a victim in this tragedy. When Agamemnon finally breaks out of his appearance as the villainof the piece, the audience reels back at his declaration that he does not wish to kill any more children, but feels he has no choice. The tables are turned as soliloquy and editorialisation of the lines of others renders every character a sympathetic one; even the sneering, strutting warrior Agamemnon, who seems to shrink onstage as the play unwinds. It’s an ongoing witness statement to the horrors of war, the sacrifice of Polyxena rebounding through different voices, all united – for perhaps the first time in the play – in their absolute despair. I’ve rarely sat in a theatre so silent, so rapt by the action presented.

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The play builds and builds at a perfect pace, the action never feeling stilted by the profusion of words bouncing around the stage. In fact, the dynamism of the leads, Fearon and Crotty, along with the vicious energy of Cassandra and a knockout performance from the young boy playing the final grandson of Priam and Hecuba, brings the play to visceral life, each and every character one to whom the audience feels tied, inexorably, to the bitter, heartbreaking end.

The ending of Carr’s version is different to the Greek original, and it’s a change that makes the play even more heartbreaking. We are left with a story where everyone has been written into particular parts, paths they cannot break from, and so Cassandra’s final prophecy of a different future, declared quietly to an empty stage for the first time in the play, rings with a damning lack of catharsis. Who was the winner? No-one, this play seems to say.

Marina Carr’s latest is a testament to her skill as a dramatist, and to the way that Greek tragedy speaks to the deepest cruelty and suffering humanity is capable of, and more importantly, to the way that inflicting the former cannot happen without incurring the latter