She's first seen trundled in on a baggage trolley and draped as though she were a mere spoil of war like her husband's armour that is propped along the side. Our last glimpse is as she's carted off up the Olivier's central aisle, her hand forked out in traumatised maternal love to the baby son now in the clutches of the soldier who will sweep him to his execution. In between, with her fragile ballet dancer beauty and pained gravity, Birkin is a haunting enough presence. And if the voice is frankly inadequate, the context very nearly makes a virtue of the deficiency: the strained, proper tones she talks in have the cut-off, brainwashed quality of someone cauterised by an excess of horror.
Euripides' searing look at war from the point of view of the vanquished was first performed two and a half thousand years ago, but it knew then that it was for all time. Prophesying the iconic status to which she and her fellow victims will be elevated, Hecuba asks: "Why did [the gods] do this, uproot the world / To make a myth of us..." Castledine's production fuses ancient myths and modern reality by setting the play in a vast, bombed-out contemporary stadium that is also evocative of a Greek amphitheatre.
The casting is often against type - successful in the case of Rosemary Harris's very moving Hecuba who is refinement at bay rather than toughened redoubtability; more controversial in the case of Janie Dee, who plays Helen of Troy as a suburbanite Texan minx in the Marilyn Monroe dress from The Seven Year Itch. She gets across Helen's bare-faced, self-justifying cheek, but it's hard to believe that this femme could ever have been truly fatale.
Looking especially vulnerable against the barbaric concrete backdrop, Castledine's fine unstylised chorus deploy with heartbreaking dignity what little power remains to these women (the simple choice, say, of when and when not to veil their faces). The jaunty martial music that here blares out with tinny insensitivity at the end, while the city is bombed and fired, is like might's last sadistic mockery of the weak. It's noticeable, though, that the women are a studiedly international group, whereas the military (led by Peter McEnery's drawling fraud of a Menelaus) and the treacherous Helen are all American. But you could argue that it's invidious to universalise one side and particularise the other and it certainly feels an anomaly in so large-spirited a production.
n Continues in repertory. Box-office: 0171-928 2252
n A version of this review appeared in late editions of yesterday's paperReuse content