Eerie resonances are stirred at the start of Euripides' Hecuba, in a new production of enthralling clarity and immediacy by Jonathan Kent. The Greeks have sacked Troy and are longing to get home. But the ghost of Achilles has taken the wind from their sails and is demanding that they honour his grave with the blood-sacrifice of Polyxena, daughter of Hecuba, the captive Trojan queen.
Sound familiar? It's grotesquely reminiscent of the prelude to the conflict. If Iphigenia at Aulis (now at the National) investigates the murky motives and twisted psychology of men about to embark on war, Hecuba is an unflinching examination of the various ways it is possible to lose the peace and sink into degradation. And both plays reinforce the sense that the post-September 11 world is terribly in tune with Greek tragedy, and Euripides in particular.
On Paul Brown's austerely beautiful set, a raked beach leads down to a pool, representing the sea from which a soused Eddie Redmayne alarmingly emerges at the start as the ghost of Polydorus. He's the son Hecuba had hoped to save by secreting him in Thrace, but he too has been murdered (from greed for gold) by his supposed protector King Polymestor (a nicely sly Finbar Lynch).
The production is rich in moments that make you shudder. One of the most powerful is when the one-woman Chorus (Susan Engel) finds the young man's washed-up corpse. Not realising yet what has been discovered, Clare Higgins's magnificent Hecuba pooh-poohs the Chorus's lamentation. "That is an old song. I've heard it before," she cries with blasé contempt - whereupon the Chorus creepily confides the irony of the situation into the corpse's ear.
"And harm hatches harm after harm," declares the enslaved queen in Frank McGuinness's wonderfully compact and visceral translation. In a sour satiric touch, overhead strip-lights come on with an awful frazzling sound whenever a Greek VIP visits Hecuba. These luminaries only obfuscate matters out of shoddy self-interest, whether it's Nicholas Day's smooth civil-service mandarin of an Odysseus, or Tim Pigott-Smith's shifty Agamemnon, who talks of how things will "handled" and how he "cannot be seen" to condone murder.
Hecuba illustrates how the greatest wrong people can do us is that which incites us to a revenge that drags us down to their level, or worse. Higgins traces every stage of that process with gut-wrenching power. There's the breast-thumping distraction of maternal grief; the sobbing that's beyond tears; the caustic defiance that repays mockery with mockery. And then there's the beamingly malign manipulative playfulness with Polymestor and his little boys that leads to blinding, infanticide and a scene at the close that is like a blackly farcical foretaste of King Lear and Beckett.
In the final scene, Hecuba digs a grave for children. The way she scrabbles in the earth with her hands makes her look uncomfortably like the wild dog into which, it has been predicted, she will be transformed.
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