Hecuba, Albery Theatre, London

Troy queen's monumental tragedy is epic disappointment
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The Independent Culture

Euripides' Hecuba is the tragedy that starts where other tragedies leave off: before the play opens, Hecuba, queen of Troy, has seen her husband and all but one of her sons slaughtered in the Greek sack of the city, and she and her daughters have been enslaved. After that, it's downhill all the way.

Euripides' Hecuba is the tragedy that starts where other tragedies leave off: before the play opens, Hecuba, queen of Troy, has seen her husband and all but one of her sons slaughtered in the Greek sack of the city, and she and her daughters have been enslaved. After that, it's downhill all the way.

Clare Higgins strolled off with last year's Olivier award for best actress for the title role in Jonathan Kent's staging at the Donmar. Vanessa Redgrave's debut in the role had been postponed because of ill health; and the poet Tony Harrison had written a new translation. Expectations were high, but Laurence Boswell's RSC production is a disappointment of epic proportions.

The set, by Es Devlin, is appropriately monumental - a cylinder of what looks like grooved concrete, which revolves to create a sort of brutalist amphitheatre, in which Matthew Douglas's corpse-white Polydorus is a grimly ethereal presence. After his departure the action is unpleasantly dominated by Mick Sands' incidental music, a generic oriental reminiscent of Hollywood biblical epics. But it becomes apparent that the chorus of Trojan women are expected to sing their lines to this - a device that, as well as sounding intrusive, exposes a streak of clumsiness in Harrison's text. The low point comes when Redgrave also launches into song, revealing that when she opted for a career in serious theatre, she benefited not only drama but also musical comedy. In this context, it is hard for the play to achieve real depth of feeling. This applies particularly to the scene where Polyxena learns that she is to be sacrificed, and reacts with pity for her mother's plight - one of the most startling and moving moments in classical tragedy. Harrison's translation, far below his best work, doesn't help.

It is littered with intrusive alliterations (he is stuck on hard Gs - Polyxena imagines "my girl's gullet gashed open", and Hecuba offers to die alongside her so that "earth and ghost get two good glugs of blood"); and a connection with present-day Iraq is underlined by the over-simple device of referring to the Greek forces repeatedly as a "coalition".

The pace picks up as Hecuba turns on the murderer Polymestor, and Redgrave, underpowered to begin with, displays a streak of acid sarcasm. But by then, the audience's emotional concentration has been lost.

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