Dublin Theatre Festival 2019: Hecuba
History is the stories written, re-written, and unwritten by the victors. In “Hecuba” by Marina Carr, Carr sets about writing, re-writing and un-writing the stories of Hecuba. Gone is Helen, dismissed along with any responsibility for the invasion of Troy by the Greeks, conveniently portrayed as welcomed guests who turn into bloodthirsty warmongers. Gone too is Hecuba’s revenge, and with it any sense of agency, justice, or complication. What remains is a “Hecuba” made uncomplicated in the service of a cause, in a production trading moral dilemmas for moral certitude. Hecuba’s tales transformed to denounce bad men who do bad things to blameless people during war, in which women and children suffer most. If its simplified position make for easy identification, “Hecuba” still lends itself to moments of power. Terrifically realised under Lynne Parker’s invested direction, delivering a powerhouse production with painstaking performances that forgive many of its sins.
Depending on your familiarity with Hecuba, you're likely to engage with Carr’s modern day reimagining in a variety of different ways. Yet, in all cases, the simplicity of the moral argument drowns most everything else out. A simplicity Sarah Bacon’s costumes reinforce with disappointing obviousness. Prowling restlessly about the stage in her trenchcoat and gold fringed, purple shawl, showing the composure of a proud lioness, Aislín McGuckin’s Hecuba is regal and upright. She may have her flaws as a mother and queen, but they pale in comparison to those of her captors, next to whom she is the epitome of grace under fire. As is an impressive Zara Devlin as good daughter, Polyxena, Mammy’s best girl draped in her dainty dress and little denim jacket. Bad daughter, the prophetess Cassandra, who Mammy doesn’t really love, sees a strong Martha Breen rebelling back in obvious black, like a high school Goth with a wounded attitude, carrying herself with regal authority. Meanwhile, the crude, lewd militarised men, loud and leering and swilling their drinks, are appropriately attired in war dusted uniforms, serving up another layer of uncomplicated contrast to the overt dignity of the women and children. Soon to have their heads smashed, throats cut, bodies raped, and their children murdered as they walk to their deaths with dignity.
To call this barbarity a war is just another of the lies these male victors tell themselves. One that results in child killings and child soldiers, displacement and torture, and the trauma of war brides taken as the spoils of war. With her husband and sons dead, and herself rounded up with the other women and children following the defeat of Troy, Hecuba knows this only too well. Her daughter, Polyxena, and her only surviving son Polydorus, an engaging Gillian Buckle reinforcing the simplified male female subtext, remain as the only lights in her life. Yet with both lights soon to be extinguished in the name of war, truth, as Hecuba rightly asserts, is that this is genocide whatever you choose to call it. Something she is powerless to prevent. Yet the murderers might be persuaded to be sympathetic. For Hecuba is objectified as a striking woman who can’t be taken by force. She has to be wooed if she’s to be conquered. Being passionate and attractive, there might be some sort of hope for her, so long as she lives up to expectations.
Under Parker’s guidance, Carr’s storytelling script comes vividly to life, despite having one hand tied firmly behind its back. With characters serving as their own chorus, both events and commentary are simultaneously delivered, translated into stories that are related as they happen, dampening the sense of immediacy. If Carr’s distancing approach avoids easy sensationalism, it can make for a long night of same old stories. One which Parker ensures the audience experience like a community of complicit witnesses gathered on three sides of a round. Something Sarah Jane Shiels superb light design reinforces, reversing conventions and making the audience knowing witnesses to the events unfolding. If Bacon’s costumes leave a lot to be desired, her meta-theatrical set proves extraordinarily effective in its stark simplicity. An AV projection by John Galvin, occupying one small corner of the space, leaves close to a third of the audience practically oblivious to it.
When kisses of direct immediacy appear, they often let more light in than just storytelling and commentary alone. Especially given "Hecuba’s" stellar cast. If Hecuba’s relationships with Cassandra and Agamemnon inject a modicum of intrigue, her real heart and soul are revealed courtesy of an electrifying performance by McGuckin, who is simply breathtaking. Owen Roe, as wing man Odysseus to Brian Doherty’s Agamemnon, see both elevated above adult cartoon villains into something with real substance, with Doherty’s world weary, warrior king showing shadows of inner conflict. True, there are good men about. But they’re pretty redundant for being beheaded or otherwise dead. Or, like Ronan Leahy’s retouched Polymester, looking utterly ineffective and defeated. Yet there remain hints at alternative outcomes as Frank Blake’s touching Neoptolemus, Achilles son, attracted to Achille’s former lover, the angelic Polyxena, share a moment. Indeed, even Agamemnon and Hecuba might have made for equally good bedfellows under different circumstances.
If “Hecuba” tips its hat at the Syrian war, conveying the powerlessness, displacement, and horror suffered by its innocent victims, its sights are firmly aimed on the men who engage in such conflicts. Indeed, if there’s much to argue with in “Hecuba,” there’s little arguing with its moral position. A tendency that’s becoming oddly familiar, wherein moral positions are used to justify, prop up and, in some cases, excuse a weak production. While “Hecuba” is anything but weak, it’s not quite up there with Carr’s best work. Yet its extraordinary cast and world class director ensure “Hecuba” is never anything less than riveting.
“Hecuba” by Marina Carr, directed by Lynne Parker, and presented by Rough Magic, runs as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2019 at The Project Arts Centre until October 6.