Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 17 October 2015
A KIND OF HORRIFIC GRACE..
We are having a spate of grisly classicana at the moment, brutal old tales of curses and murders and doom spinning down the unforgiving generations. A brace of stage Oresteias, a scorching Elektra, Bacchae everywhere you look. Here, though, is another take on the ancient horrors of the Trojan war.
Marina Carr, admirably uninterested in male heroics and subtly channelling present-day brutalities, centres her re-telling on Hecuba, wife of King Priam and queen of the ancient civilisation ravaged by the Grecian invaders. Taking Euripides, Homer and other ancient variants, Carr delivers something unutterably bleak but strangely beautiful. Not least in the restraint of Erica Whyman’s direction and Soutra Gilmour’s design: no silly gross-out spectacle or property rubber limbs here. The story is told mostly in narration by the various characters, each recounting conversations, sometimes relating one another’s lines: a tactic which at first slightly alienated me, but whose poetic distancing grew more powerful by the minute, reminiscent of Synge and Yeats in Deirdre of the Sorrows.
But oh, the pity and horror and blunt stupidity of such war! We meet Hecuba on her dead husband’s throne, describing the torn bodies of her sons lying around her, Priam’s chopped-off head seeping on her knee, her baby grandson’s body flung among them, his head crushed. Her gentler daughter Polyxena weeps and the tougher less loved one, Cassandra who foresaw it all, sneers “Don’t you just love war. Sexy!”. Derbhle Crotty is a marvellous Hecuba, mature and enduring, proud. “Three thousand years of breeding in that pose” says the conquering Agamemnon, who strides in gleaming with barbaric warrior pride . The admiration is not mutual. “You came as guests, reeking of goat-shit and mackerel, saw our fields and palaces..”. The Greeks here are marauders, aggressors, imperialists, who know no rules of war. Outside women are being ravaged, old ones killed, babies thrown on pyres. “Different rules now” says Agamemnon “Everything is in my gift”.
Ray Fearon’s Agamemnon plays brilliantly against Hecuba. Here is a Spartan boy soldier who led troops at thirteen, never learned to read and write but sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia on the strand to get a fair wind. The brilliance of Carr’s characterization is her indication of the man’s intelligence, blunted by violence, and the vulnerability which Hecuba – still assured, though defeated and grieving – can raise in him. He cuts her own daughter’s throat for a fair wind to get his rabble of Grecian tribesmen home, knowing perfectly well that the superstition is “all shit” , and afterwards tends the hungry, ragged queen and takes her in his arms, needing her comfort not only physically but asking her how to run a country.
“Our laws” she says calmly “Were ten thousand years in the making”. That his army has destroyed them in mere hours is, Agamemnon perceives miserably, a less proud thing. In an extraordinary, arresting scene the child Polydorus, last son of Priam and knowing he is to die now, sits on his father’s throne. On press night it was Luca Saraceni-Gunner, a child of devastating dignity. His calm nobility leaves the immense Agamemnon muttering “I am humbled, reduced..”.
Hecuba is doomed, enslaved, defiled, bereaved, begging on her knees. But never reduced. Agamemnon speaks of her having “a kind of horrific grace”. The phrase sums up the play. Can’t get it out of my head.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 17 October