So I've been to the Donmar Warehouse with
Number One Son and we've seen that powerful Hecuba production.
First, the theatre.
It was my first visit, and the first for N.O.S. If you haven't been, you might appreciate a brief description. The street entrance is just a big doorway, really, with nothing posh or 'west-end-theatrely' about it. There is no cloakroom, so N.O.S. had to leave his folding bicycle chained up outside. I was anxious whether it would be all right there. You collect your tickets on the ground floor, if you've ordered on the internet, and climb stairs (iron, if I remember) to the 'stalls' level of the theatre. We climbed another flight to the second and highest level, and found a balcony round three sides of the auditorium, with only two rows of seats, I think, facing the stage, and four on each side. We were on one side, in the front row, and I need to issue three warnings about those seats.
- The seat backs are vertical, and get rather uncomfortable after a while. Looking from above I thought that the stalls had more comfortable backs.
- The seating is one continuous padded bench, so there's a certain amount of negotiation needed to get your proper place, and space. Fortunately there were no obese people in our row!
- A single horizontal rail comes right in the middle of your view of the stage.
Well then, to the play itself, and first the visual aspects of the production.
The back of the stage is a great wall. Meaningful stuff was happening on the wall (I won't say more for fear of spoiling your visit) but there was no backcloth. The scene of Euripides' play is thus described by Philip Vellacott in his Penguin translation:
The scene is before Agamemnon's tent, near the shore of the Thracian Peninsula (on the opposite side of the Strait from Troy), where the Greek army is encamped.. The GHOST OF POLYDORUS appears above Agamemnon's tent.
Question: Which is more important, Agamemnon's tent, or the shore? Answer in this production: The shore. And it seems a triumphantly right answer. As for the Ghost of Polydorus appearing above the tent, on the 'god platform', it may have been the best way in the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, but the ghost's opening words point to another solution:
From sombre caverns of the secret earth, from gates of darkness … from the dead I come.
So where does the Ghost come from? I keep stumm, but I think it's a brilliant answer.
'Hecuba' presents us with women who have been enslaved, and with men who have power. In the Donmar the women emerge from some subterranean region while the men come down a path leading to the highest part of the stage. The women wear timeless dull-coloured dresses/robes while the men wear the modern suits of the rich and powerful.
So much for the visual aspects. What of the words and their delivery?
I have just looked back at
the interview I featured a few blogs ago, and noticed this:
We're going to start by doing it slowly, then faster and faster, until it's moving like a juggernaut.
I rather wish I'd remembered that, during the first speeches. The Ghost of Polydorus takes an age to get through his monologue, and I prepared myself for a ponderous performance throughout – but not so. It does pick up momentum, and as the plot unfolds and the tension and horror increase, so the pace increases also.
Three authoritative male characters, Odysseus, Agamemnon and Polymestor King of Thrace, exhibit the quiet reasonable confidence, when confronting the desperate and powerless(?) Hecuba, that chairmen of multinationals show when dealing with environmental protestors at an AGM – or that Jason shows in his first exchange of speeches with Medea. Of the three, only Agamemnon shows a sympathetic side, and that is probably because he is sleeping with Hecuba's daughter. Talthybius the herald is humane, but has no power. Polyxena, the doomed daughter of Priam and Hecuba, satisfactorily mixes teenage rebellion with heroism. The two little boys, looking as though they were on a day out with their father from prep school, did not put a foot wrong. Hecuba herself cumulatively builds up a character that is human, believeable, inconsolable and, as it emerges, implacable.
I think the best tribute to the English version is that I was hardly ever conscious that it was a translation. I can't remember anything that jarred.
If you are not familiar with the play, then I suggest you don't read it before going to the Donmar. N.O.S. commented at the end that he was glad not to have known the plot. This is live drama for today.
The day we went to Hecuba the papers were full of the hostages in Iraq. I can't help wondering if the wicked and terrible tactics of the hostage-takers are a desperate response to overwhelming American power that Euripides – and Hecuba – would have understood.
You'll be relieved to hear that the folding bicycle was safe and sound.