Theatre review: Hecuba at the 2019 Dublin Theatre Festival
Rough Magic, 2019
Written by Marina Carr
Director: Lynne Parker
Cast: Aislin McGuckin, Brian Doherty, Zara Devlin, Martha Breen, Gillian Buckle, Owen Roe, Karen McCartney, Frank Blake, Ronan Leahy
Project Arts Centre, Dublin - 5th October 2019
The fact that the Greek myths have endured and are still popular subjects inspiring contemporary literature, opera and drama is surely an indication that they hold essential truths about humanity as well as warnings that have carried across millennia and are still relevant to today. Getting to the underlying truth behind the myth however remains a challenge and often the best way of getting close to it is to relate it to what we see in the world around us today. That's as true for Shakespeare's time when he undermined the heroic endeavours of the Trojan War in Troilus and Cressida as it is for Marina Carr bringing it closer to home in her hard-hitting Hecuba.
In Hecuba the story of the fall of Troy becomes less of a heroic adventure and more of a genocidal act on a particularly horrific and brutal scale. There's no sparing of the reality of the slaughter of women and children and even descriptions of the dashing of heads of young babies by Agamemnon and the Greek forces as Troy is overrun. The play opens up with Hecuba describing the carnage she witnesses in the royal palace of Troy, holding her husband Priam's head amidst the horror and butchery of body parts lying all around her.
At the same time as it makes vivid the true nature of the Trojan war, Hecuba takes influence from what we see (or rather don't see) in the world around us today; in Syria, in the plight of refugees fleeing war having witnessed similar horrors and butchery enacted on their own families. We might have heard horrific accounts from survivors on the news and in the newspapers, but it's impossible to know how someone who lived through it might actually feel. Hecuba knows how it feels and Marina Carr's writing gives voice to it.
And she does so through an approach towards acting and dialogue that is an unusual but surprisingly effective at cutting through mere dramatic re-enactment. All the characters, mainly Greek men on one side and Trojan women on the other, enact the further subsequent harrowing events that take place in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter and razing of Troy as it takes place, but they often narrate the words and expressions of the person they are facing, who in turn narrates their impressions of what they see and hear, with direct speech being less commonly spoken. Truth can't just be shown - particularly on a stage; it has to be put into words and words shape truths just as much as they create myths.
The principal confrontation and tension lies between Hecuba (Aislin McGuckin) and Agamemnon (Brian Doherty), and there's an undeniable sexual tension there. Regardless of the circumstances, these are two powerful people of opposite sexes meeting each other for the first time, each coming with big reputations that carry a certain measure of intrigue and interest. Hecuba is less concerned with being raped as somewhat incredulous at the thought of an attempted seduction by her aggressor, but it's the fate of her remaining children that preoccupy her and guide her dealings with Agamemnon. Her daughter Cassandra (Martha Breen) doesn't seem to count, hated for the curse of her already knowing everyone's fate as well as her own, but Cassandra is also someone who knows the truth, and that is something that no-one really wants to hear, least of all a mother concerned about her other children Polyxena (Zara Devlin) and Polydorus (Gillian Buckle).
There's no need to depict what happens to them directly and Rough Magic's production directed by Lynne Parker - like the narration/dialogue - is stylised, enacted in the round with scattered chairs for props, vividly present to the audience (sitting alongside in the same chairs) in terms of how it is described, how it is acted and made present. Carr is able to get the best of both worlds in order to describe the worst, using both poetic accounts and descriptions and visualisations combined with direct frank words and admissions. The truth of course lies somewhere beyond that, in a place where you don't really want to get too close to, but within the confines of the Project Arts Centre's Space Upstairs, Hecuba makes the truth of human behaviour in war more real than you might like to think about or dwell to heavily upon.