National Theatre, Lyttelton. “From a version by Don Taylor.” 1 hr, 30 mins, no interval. Opened Lyttelton Theatre, November 28, 2007
We saw this, the second performance of this production, on what was evidently a schools night, to judge from the extraordinary crowd of late teen-age members of the audience. They were loud and somewhat boisterous, exhibiting a lot of excitement about actually seeing a play on the South Bank; and subdued yet comparatively boisterous after the curtain went down. But while the performance was going on they were as silent as the tomb.
And rightly so. Of all of Euripides’ somber dramas this one is surely the most somber and unrelenting. In an essay accompanying the program, Don Taylor, a prolific poet, playwright, TV director and adapter, who died in 2003 (his version of the play was first published in his The War Plays in 1990, the single play republished in 2007) explains the likely circumstances of then-current Greek political life to which Euripides was presumably reacting. They are appalling for the revelation of the barbarous cruelty of the Athenians. And yet they fade into insignificance in the face of the brutal facts of the play and its unsparing action.
In a sense, there is no real action to the play; it is all catastrophe, strung out at almost unendurable length. Hecuba, Queen of ruined Troy, her daughter Andromache and Andromache’s son Astyanax, the crazy Cassandra, and the women of her court (given individual names in the program, for reasons that remain obscure) are imprisoned in a warehouse-like holding area with a low ceiling, above which is another office-like space where Helen, alone, is being held; at stage left is a massive metal door that can be raised, revealing a large space that presumably leads onto a dock. Two Greek soldiers are in attendance, and they are also the messengers who bring the news of the several yet equally bleak fates of Hecuba and her women. It is a generalized, modern-day setting, suggestive perhaps of Sarajevo (Taylor’s poem “Reunion in Sarajevo” is included in the Methuen 2000 edition of the play as a “Postscript,” and in the National Theatre program as well). The women are dressed in dark-colored ball gowns, with bare shoulders, evidently to remind us of the elegant lives they have led — and have so recently had to forsake. And at times, quite unpredictably, they fall into almost somnambulatory dancing. I was reminded by this of the fact that the ancient Greek chorus sang and danced, and reminded also of how intimately and seamlessly Euripides blends ode and episode together to achieve a profoundly unified effect of emotional devastation.
Taylor’s version, as mounted by Katie Mitchell, the stage director, does away completely with the formal divisions of the text of the play; and yet one can sense segments of the action beginning and playing themselves out, and then in due course giving way to the next segment. This was especially evident in the segment involving the arrival of Menelaus, played as an almost simpering, spineless husband by Stephen Kennedy. He is angry beyond all bearing, but at the same time he is the perennial despicable cuckold who has come to claim his errant wife Helen. On his orders she is brought down to the ground floor from the office gallery where she has been alternatively running about and exhibiting herself in revealing underwear in previous scenes. Menelaus confronts her, treats her very roughly, and promises her imminent death. But she knows her man, and it is clear she will seduce him and once more gain control of him, as of her own life. The sequence adds a large measure of dismay to the feelings already generated by the play, as we realize that the vivacious, seductive woman whose infidelity brought about a decade-long war of Trojans and Greeks and has resulted in the death of King Priam, the destruction of his city, and the enslavement of his queen and her women is going to be allowed to go virtually unpunished for her deed.
The most lamentable sequences are those that involve Andromache and her boy Astyanax, still an infant as played in this production: first, when the Greek soldiers have to follow her around the stage as she resists giving up her child to them, who have declared openly their intention to drop him from the battlements; and then the later sequence, in which the dead body of the boy is brought back on stage in a plain cardboard box. One of the women uses a fixed ladder against the wall to climb to the second floor, break in through the casement window, find a small flower in a pot, and bring it back down. The women then pick the petals from the puny flower and strew them grimly on the corpse of the dead infant.
Of details such as this is made this riveting, searing play. Finally, words are inadequate to express the depth of feeling inspired by the relentless movement of the play toward finality. It is almost too much, or perhaps almost beside the point, that as the women are herded off through the massive open door at stage left, bombs and explosives begin to bring down the place where they have been temporarily retained. And yet, unbeknownst to the Greek soldiers, one of the women has hidden herself from them and, remaining behind, sits at a table near the center, produces a compact, and dabs her cheeks with it and improves her hair and face. There is a kind of tender futility in this last gesture that serves to bring in the last measure of pity from us. If not handled exactly right, it would be over the top. But it was just right, and made a fitting end to a memorable experience in the theatre.