A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

 Hecuba, the most produced of Euripides’ nineteen plays, was revived twice, at the Donmar, where Jonathan Kent directs, and by the Royal Shakespeare Company.    Mr. Kent observes that this play is “one of the most savage indictments of war ever written.”  Although it would be a mistake, he believes, “to set the action explicitly outside Basra or Baghdad, yet it would also be a sign of failure if the play didn’t bring Iraq to mind.” 

With Clare Higgins as Hecuba, Euripides’ powerful tragedy begins and ends with the deaths of children.  As the play begins, a youth in white (Eddie Redmayne) rises out of the water at the front of the stage, telling us that he, the son of  King Priam of Troy, was murdered by his guardian Polymestor of Thrace, where he had been sent during the long Trojan war, now over. The victorious Greeks hold as captive Priam’s wife, Hecuba. The crone who represents the chorus tells Hecuba of her son’s corpse, and as she kneels weeping over his body, the picture recalls recurring television images.  Worse is in store for Hecuba, whose daughter Polyxena (Kate Fleetwood) is taken from her to be sacrificed to appease the ghost of the Greek hero Achilles.  She pleads in vain to the  Greek leaders, smug men in suits, Odysseus (Nicholas Day) and Agamemnon (Tim Pigott-Smith), to stay the execution.  Receiving nothing but double talk, she vows vengeance: “harm hatches harm after harm;” this echoes Macbeth’s “blood will have blood.” With bloodshed leading to more bloodshed in the cycle of violence, Hecuba and the Trojan women (offstage) blind Polymestor and horribly butcher his children. The play ends with a frightening image: Hecuba on all fours, frantically digging in the sand like a dog into which she will, it is predicted, be transformed.

  Ms. Higgins is both magnificent and terrifying as Hecuba, tenderly patting the shoulder of her dead son, playing with Polymestor’s little boys before she leads them off to their destruction, sobbing with grief or howling in anger when her daughter is led off to her death. The translation by Frank McGuinness gives us dialogue that is sinewy and contemporary.   Suiting the action perfectly is Paul Brown’s set, with white sand dunes ending downstage in water and at the back, a high black wall like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, with soldiers’ names inscribed in many languages. Director Jonathan Kent, as he did with “Medea,” achieves a balance that conveys the full horror of Greek tragedy and its message about war and violence.  Mr. McGuinness, who was working on his translation when the war in Iraq began, observes: “If you create an environment where the waging of war is your solution, you are in terrible danger of unleashing something terrifying and demonic that you will never be able to control.  War plays remind us of that.  ‘Hecuba’ reminds us of that.”   (Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX, phone: 0870 060 6624 www.donmarwarehouse.com.