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A HECKUVA ’HECUBA’

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Vanessa Redgrave triumphs as the bereaved queen in search of justice

for The Brooklyn Paper
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With her starring role in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s "Hecuba," Vanessa Redgrave began her debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 17. One can only regret that it took her so long to get to Brooklyn.

Redgrave’s performance is powerful, nuanced, textured, passionate and reasoned. The Tony and Academy Award-winning actress’ wild, white mane, anguished face and expressive hands all make the tragedy of this tortured mother and fallen queen as personal as the death of a neighbor’s son and as contemporary as an article in today’s newspapers. The relevancy for us as a modern audience given current events is, of course, exactly what poet-translator (and now director, after he took over the reins from Laurence Boswell) Tony Harrison had in mind when he translated Euripides’ 2,500-year-old tragedy.

But Redgrave is not all fury. Her performance has a perfectly lucid quality. After all, Hecuba is only seeking justice - nothing more and nothing less. She is even capable of irony when she chides Odysseus that he is not listening to her. And there is more than a bit of cunning in the way she eventually plots her revenge.

Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War, "Hecuba" uses the story of the Trojan queen, now a slave of the Greeks, to portray the senseless brutality men are capable of enacting against one another.

First Hecuba loses her daughter, Polyxena, to the ghost of Achilles (who demands she be sacrificed). Then she discovers she has lost her son, Polydoros, to Polymestor, the King of Thrace. (The King of Thrace kills the young Polydoros, whom Hecuba entrusts him with, in order to rob him of his gold).

Bitter and betrayed, Hecuba seeks vengeance where she can. After receiving assurances that he will not intervene from Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, she blinds Polymestor and kills his two sons.

Harrison says he decided to write a new version of "Hecuba" for the Royal Shakespeare Company because he knew Redgrave had agreed to play the title role. But one suspects the current situation in Iraq had more than a little to do with his decision.

The allusions are all over the place. The Greeks have formed a "coalition." Hecuba insists that "those in power shouldn’t use it to do wrong" and asks whether "democracy demands a human sacrifice." The King of Thrace laments that he has been destroyed by "terrorists from Troy."

Fortunately, however, this production does not need to be propped up by political innuendo. From Es Devlin’s set of tiered tents to Adam Silverman’s moving manipulation of light and shadow to the chorus (which sings its grief and horror) to Redgrave’s supporting cast, Harrison’s "Hecuba" is uniformly outstanding.

Lydia Leonard as Polyxena is a dignified, noble and virtuous martyr who is a powerful illustration of what the messenger, Talthybius (Alan Dobie), means when he says to Hecuba, "You’ve got the best of children and the worst of fate."

Darrell D’Silva makes Polymestor tragic as well as evil in his blind rage at the loss of his sight and his children. In fact, in portraying Polymestor as a kind of distorted mirror image of Hecuba, D’Silva provides the link that makes "Hecuba" so chillingly effective.

When Euripides wrote "Hecuba," he was addressing an audience of victors and reminding them that victory is not always sweet, and it is certainly not without guilt. No doubt this was not a lesson everyone was ready to hear.

Today, Redgrave and Harrison are attempting to revive this message for a nation that has not yet even tasted victory. It is a lesson that will be even harder for ambivalent and confused Americans.

Still, Euripides’ wonderful poetry and Harrison’s sensitive translation, coupled with this extraordinary presentation, make The Royal Shakespeare Company’s "Hecuba" a must for anyone who, like this reviewer, believes that just about everything we need to know about morality (if not in the Bible) was elucidated by the Greeks.

 

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of "Hecuba" plays June 25 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and June 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 www.bam.org.

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