IF EVERY generation gets the Greek tragedy it deserves, and if ours therefore gets Euripides's "Hecuba" -- well, these are trying times indeed, no? London has hosted not one but two productions of the heart-stopping horror of late, a Donmar Warehouse staging that opened to ecstatic reviews last fall, and a Royal Shakespeare Company version in April whose fortunes roughly paralleled the travails of its embattled, eponymous Trojan queen.
It's the second of these that set sail for Washington. Still, Tony Harrison -- who penned the "Hecuba" translation employed here -- promised a staging "quite different" from that seen by British audiences. A statement by the Royal Shakespeare Company echoed his claims, announcing as well that Harrison would take over directing duties at the Kennedy Center, replacing Laurence Boswell. Everything from lighting to sets to blocking was given a fresh look -- everything save the casting, which was in some ways the production's most controversial element. Vanessa Redgrave, legendary actress and this "Hecuba's" raison d'etre, would continue in the title role.
"The fact that it was her is what decided it for me, because she's absolutely the right person to play Hecuba," Harrison said in an interview just before opening night. "I've done a lot of Greek plays [of late], and in some ways I wanted a rest, but the fact that it was Vanessa -- it was too tempting to pass up."
What Hecuba and Redgrave share, Harrison said, is a passion for justice. "She's a great actress, but she's also a great, passionate political campaigner," most recently on behalf of Peace and Progress, a political party she co-founded in London in 2004. (The group has called for, among other things, the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq.)
Hecuba's own campaign is for vengeance borne of unparalleled destitution. Once the queen of Troy and now a slave, she has already lost her husband and several children when the tragedy begins. In due course she will lose yet another daughter (Lydia Leonard), as well as her sole surviving son, Polydorus (Matthew Douglas).
The drama's first half, in which Hecuba is repeatedly victimized, has elicited mixed reactions from audiences and critics, some of whom take issue with Redgrave's understated approach. ("I left this production entirely dry-eyed, though it is undoubtedly a crying shame," wrote Charles Spencer in London's Daily Telegraph.)
But then comes the second half. When Hecuba solicits the aid of her fellow Trojan women in a daring revenge plot, Redgrave is riveting. As The Washington Post's Peter Marks put it, "She's most in her element in the ghoulish undercurrent of gleefulness she brings to the task of gouging out an eye for an eye."
Traditionalists might prefer a Hecuba equally blessed with pathos and pugnacity, but to the extent that current events -- about which this "Hecuba" is determined to comment -- evoke not tears but outrage, a question arises. Is the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Hecuba" the version of this tragedy we truly deserve?
"Euripides is not preaching a sermon, and I don't want to preach a sermon," said Harrison, whose translation makes explicit reference to the Iraq war, most notably in its repeated use of a certain word to describe the Greek forces that pummeled Troy. "I've called it 'the great coalition' because it wasn't Greece: It was Argos plus Sparta plus Athens plus Ithaca. It was a great coalition . . . and people can feel that crack of electricity, feel that spark."
What this "Hecuba" aims for is a searing investigation into the consequences of that coalition's occupation, especially the morality of the retaliation it provokes. An air of urgency hangs over these questions in our time and indeed over the 2,500-year-old play out of which they spring.
"We get to the point of rooting for her to kill Polymestor [Darrell D'Silva]," said Harrison, speaking of the man behind the deaths of Hecuba's son and husband. "You think she'll kill him, but she doesn't kill him: She blinds him and she kills his innocent children." The scene, utterly terrifying, produces gasps from the Kennedy Center audience.
"We go, 'Oh, God, we didn't subscribe to that!' It's like saying, 'I understand the Palestinian cause, but I don't want someone to sit on a bus full of children and detonate a bomb.' We don't buy into that."