Harrison ’rescues’ Vanessa Redgrave from ’dysfunctional’ director for BAM’s ’Hecuba’

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When poet, translator and director Tony Harrison accepted the Royal Shakespeare Company’s commission to translate Euripides’ 2,500-year-old tragedy, "Hecuba," it was primarily because Vanessa Redgrave was going to play the title role.

But when the play - and Redgrave’s performance - received mixed reviews in the UK, he knew he had to take the director’s reins away from Laurence Boswell. So when the play comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 17, it will most certainly bear Harrison’s directorial imprint.

Although Harrison, who is wary of handing his writing over to directors, frequently helms productions of his own work - "Poetry or Bust (1993), "The Kaisers of Carnuntum" (1995) and "The Labourers of Herakles" (1995) - he told GO Brooklyn in a phone interview from London May 25 that stepping in at such a late date was "not what I wanted to do."

"Normally, I would start the project," explained Harrison. "In this case, the Royal Shakespeare Company asked if I would do a version of ’Hecuba.’ I did it because I’ve done this kind of stuff before [’The Oresteia’ was awarded the 1981 European Translation Prize] and because of Vanessa.

"I thought she absolutely was the right person," said Harrison. "I did think it was irresistible. She’s not only a great actress but also the right age. And she has great political passion." The Academy Award-winning Redgrave (1977’s "Julia"), won a 2003 Tony Award for her performance as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night."

Harrison blames his star’s unhappiness with the London version of "Hecuba," which was staged at the Albery Theatre through May 7, on Boswell.

"The worst disaster was seeing Vanessa demoralized by a dysfunctional director. Anyone who can demoralize Vanessa, a great spirit in theater, has to have a problem.

"It was my duty to rescue her." (Attempts to reach Boswell for comment by press time were unsuccessful.)

Brooklyn audiences have a special reason for being grateful to Harrison.

"She wouldn’t have come to America if I hadn’t taken over," he said. "I had to give her back her belief in the play."

Harrison’s passion for the play, about the aftermath of the Trojan Wars and "an old woman and a queen and the most reduced person of all," is infectious. He certainly believes its themes of conflict between East (Troy) and West (Greece) and the limits of revenge are "from the pages of yesterday’s papers."

As the Trojan queen, Hecuba (Redgrave) seeks revenge for the murder of her son.

"Euripides makes people think about the nature of vengeance and its limitations," said Harrison. "The chorus of Trojan women uses her need for vengeance as a substitute for their own. They all subscribe to the death of the person who killed her son - but no further."

For Harrison, the similarities between Euripides’ tragedy and current events are "much more painful and uncomforta­ble," and they are so obvious, they don’t need to be pushed.

"Ten Greek cities invaded Troy. It was a coalition. So I used the word ’coalition,’" he explained. "The setting is any conflict now, haunted by an ancient play."

Harrison said he has "always taken inspiration from the Greek mentality," and he has cast this production of "Hecuba" in a classical light, with help from lighting designer Adam Silverman.

"When the play was originally performed, it was in the full light of day," explained Harrison. "The actors and the audience could see each other and beyond to the source of power. So we’ll be doing the play with lots of light.

"At the Kennedy Center [where ’Hecuba’ plays before coming to BAM], I’ve told the actors to perform as if the walls were made of glass," said Harrison. "The Greeks believed that when the worst happens, the most light is shed. So we increase the light incrementally until when the worst happens, it’s at its maximum."

Although Harrison’s career has included a substantial amount of directing, he calls it a "bull---- career" and points out that for 2000 years, directors were pretty much unknown in European theater and are mostly a modern innovation. If something has been lost with the intrusion of the director into the actor-poet relationship, Harrison believes that he was able to "liberate" Redgrave, and in doing so, liberated the entire cast. As a result, the show’s reception in D.C. has been "wonderful," said Harrison.

"Every time Vanessa comes on, she gets a standing ovation," he said. But what pleases Harrison the most, he said, is that "She’s found the role. She’s stopped being demoralized."

He recounted a story that amply illustrated his point.

"I saw Vanessa after one run-through [of ’Hecuba,’ as directed by Harrison] and it was raining, a big storm," he recalled. "She had an umbrella. And she did the whole number in ’Singin’ in the Rain.’ And I thought, okay, we’re going to win."


The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of "Hecuba" plays June 17-18, and June 21-25 at 7:30 pm, June 18 and 25 at 2 pm and June 19 and 26 at 3 pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $30, $45, $65 and $85. For tickets and information call BAM Ticket Services at (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at

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