Vanessa Redgrave is currently playing Hecuba in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.  --  "Why two Hecubas in less than a year?" asks Alastair Macaulay.  "Because this is one of the great war plays." ...

Home UK

By Alastair Macaulay

Financial Times (UK)
April 15, 2005

Of Britain's senior actresses, there are three who can perform magic: Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave. And of Redgrave, the most erratic of the three, people often predict "She'll be either wonderful or terrible." In the event, however, many of her performances are examples of of both. She can be the most clumsy and most luminous of great actors in the course of a single performance. Currently she is appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Euripides' Hecuba: a play staged in London only last autumn, with another of our finest actors, Clare Higgins, at the Donmar Warehouse. As Hecuba, the widowed queen of destroyed Troy, Redgrave is heart-stopping in the word's bad and good senses.

There are some 20 pauses when you'd swear she's forgotten the next line, and many more moments when her inflections, end-stoppings and droning chants are clumsy and ineloquent. Yet I hope I never forget the grim smile with which she stands in complete stillness to listen, for minutes on end, to the misogynistic reproaches of Polymestor, the traitor who has killed her last son: tragic magic. She has lost all; now she has killed his sons and blinded him; she is beyond accusations. She is sometimes far less good than Higgins (who was searing), yet she's more original and more surprising, and eventually she travels a larger emotional arc.

Why two Hecubas in less than a year? Because this is one of the great war plays. Whereas Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis (unstylishly staged by Katie Mitchell with her usual Euroclichés at the National Theatre last year) builds up to the sacrifice of a royal child whereby war can begin, Hecuba begins by showing two different sacrifices of royal children, now the same war is over. Hecuba's daughter Polyxena, a Trojan counterpart to Iphigeneia, must be sacrificed; and Hecuba's son Polydorus has been butchered by a turncoat ex-ally. As if the loss of city, husband, sons, grandchildren were not enough, now Hecuba must meet these final extinctions of hope. No playwright shows the human cost of war better than Euripides, even now.

It is too bad that Hecuba and this Royal Shakespeare Company production are having to struggle through a ghastly translation by Tony Harrison, weighing down Euripides' text with excessively fancy alliteration and rhyme.

The director Laurence Boswell proved himself Britain's most stylish stager of Greek tragedy in the 1990s at the Gate, above all in his collaboration with the composer Mick Sands in the Agamemnon's Children triple bill. Here again, he and Sands have a chorus singing the choral odes: this swells the whole tone of a Greek drama. However I blame Harrison -- neither Boswell nor Sands seems here so inspired. Too often even the production's best actors are unsure how to sound fresh or effective.

Yet here, whereas the Donmar staging suffered from being badly cut, and having its verse badly spoken, the overall shape and spirit of the play is clear. The play works without the intensity of the Donmar version, but by letting the architecture of Euripides' play register with a large formal power. Within this tragic structure, Redgrave's performance changes and grows until it becomes the production's raison d'ĂȘtre.

At Riverside Studios, Oxford Stage Company is giving us one of Strindberg's lesser-known plays, Easter (1901). It's easy to think of Strindberg as the darkest-souled playwright of his era, opening up psychological chasms of anger and distress between man and woman (Miss Julie, The Dance of Death, etc). But the man was capable of tenderness, and Easter is his most tender and optimistic play. He (like Tennessee Williams) had a sister who was sectioned for mental illness, who he felt suffered on his behalf, and with whom he felt psychically connected. In Easter, he put her on stage, as the alarmed hero Elis's sister Eleonora. She can hear what the telegraph wires are saying, and the starlings: the voices of the world pass through her. She is part angel, part holy fool, and she cannot help feeling, uttering, the sufferings of those about her. To a family that is at best forlorn, at worst doomed, she brings hope.

Much about Dominic Dromgoole's production is beautiful, not least Michael Taylor's set, with its windows looking out on trees not yet in bud and its detailed interior; and the lighting by Mark Doubleday makes subtly expressionistic effects. As Eleonora, Frances Thorburn catches a radiantly innocent femininity seldom seen these days: both girl and woman, wise and naive, neurotic and illumined. Another facet of the era 1900-14 comes to life.

Meanwhile Kneehigh Theatre (from Cornwall) has brought its Tristan and Yseult to the National Theatre's smallest auditorium, the Cottesloe. The legend is told to us by geeks wearing anoraks and horn-rimmed specs; the tale of consuming love is told to us by those who are unloved: a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern view of passion. There is something uniquely British about this, and Kneehigh devotees tell me the company's previous three productions have been wholly enchanting. In this case, however, the tone is misjudged, and the show over-extended. But the final twist will stay with me, as we find the evening's unloved main narrator is Tristan's wife, the other Yseult. Often she talks in tones of bathos, but now she rises to real pathos: "No matter how I bathe his wounds, I cannot make him see me."

Tristan dies and the loved Yseult arrives, expiring too, while the climax of Wagner's famous "Liebestod" pounds over us; and Tristan's wife watches, plaintive, and asks: "Where does all the wasted love go?"