adapted & directed by Tony Harrison
starring Vanessa Redgrave
a Royal Shakespeare Company production
at BAM (closed 6/26)
I'll stand up for this production, despite the tepid critical response. Yes, it was a bit flat, and the political messages were both too blunt and too muddled at times. But I often sleep during Greek Tragedy stagings today and Hecuba kept me awake. (Sounds like a low standard, I know, but read on.) Tony Harrison--a poet and classical translator I've always admired and should be more known in the US--writes language that cuts like a knife; for all its idiosyncrasies and "anachronistic" flourishes (the free use of buzz words like "terrorist"--used against the Trojans-- and "coalition" to describe the Greek army) this is a superb spoken text that an audience can hang on every word of. And in the booming voice of Vanessa Redgrave and an unusually articulate and in-unison chorus, every word was heard, even in the notorious upper balcony of the BAM opera house. It is so hard to capture the Dionysian, physical energy embedded in these plays that I feel grateful to at least be able to enjoy the Apollonian elements and have a meaningful listening experience. Saying a production communicated a play as great literature is not always damning with faint praise.
But politics more than Great-Book-worship was clearly on the agenda for such radical animals as Harrison and Redgrave. The stunning set by Es Devlin (another Apollonian delight, see photo) presented you with an endless landscape of tents, evoking both the battlefields and refugee camps of recent wars. Devlin's costumes seem particularly Serbo-Croation, but much in text--and in the George-Bush-swagger and American r's of Darrel D'Silva's Odysseus--point to the conflict on our TV screens every night. Occasionally a line--like Hecuba's "Great power must use power wisely"--really cuts through. I liked Harrison's transformation of the chorus (always a problem in modern Greekdom) into an austere Brechtian commentator, even singing lines to interject into the main characters' dialogue; the Hanns Eisler-esque sprechtstimme of composer Mick Sands' odes serves this purpose well, especially when Harrison employs that old trick from the Brecht playbook, turning on the houselights, in a confrontational ode here delivered face out as "You'll have to pay!" Yes, even though this is a production originated in the UK and has toured elsewhere, the tone of Brits lecturing Americans was unmistakable. But, hey--who at BAM disagreed?