Classical it may be but this is a flawed production of a pretty miserable play. It is a short but brutal story and Paul Vitty's direction does nothing to find the light and shade within the horror, giving the audience 90 minutes of unmitigated and high-pitched angst. The press release promises 'an intimate evening of heartache and fury' but although the Etcetera Theatre is pleasingly cosy, emotional intimacy is glaringly absent from this Hecuba.
Based on Euripides' Greek tragedy, with a few additional scenes penned by Vitty himself, Hecuba concerns itself with characters familiar from Greek mythology. Hecuba is the wife of King Priam of Troy, who has been ignominiously defeated by Achilles, Agamemnon et al. via the clever an infamous ruse of the Trojan horse. Deposed from power and in the hands of her enemies, Hecuba laments her old life and her dead children. Only her daughter and son Polyxena and Polydorus survive and it is their final and brutal deaths which drives the force of the story. Determined to avenge their deaths and those of the other children of Troy, Hecuba and the Trojan women vow to avenge their lost children and their sacked city. Under the watchful and suspicious eye of Agamemnon, they manage to trick the military leader Polymestor into a bloody and disastrous end, much to their own satisfaction and earning Agamemnon's grudging respect.
This is all good meaty stuff and along with the poetry of the dialogue, provides ample opportunity for exploring the pathos, delicacy and brutality of loss. Unfortunately, from the beginning all we are confronted by is loud, foot-stamping anger and fixed looks of 'sadness' on the faces of the Chorus. None of the actors have been given sufficient direction to find either the subtlety of the language and emotion or to respect the need for controlled voices in such a small space. Far from assaulting each other with their fiery tongues, it is the audience who bears the brunt of the actors' explosions of anger, which come too frequently to ignore. When they are not shouting, their grief seems directionless and general, so that the violence the women mete out seems misplaced and without a driving conviction.
Only Felicity McCormack as Laodice really shines, managing as she does to imbue her delivery with the meaning and significance the language demands. She alone seems to have a living and breathing character rooted in the world of the play, rather than being a simple mouthpiece for someone else's lines, and she is compelling to watch for that reason. Tim Fordyce as Agamemnon also produces some effective moments. He is both a menacing and attentive presence and gives a good sense of a man who is both absolutely powerful and yet unpredictable in his loyalties and diktats.
Overall though, the actors struggle to break out of the rehearsed reading mentality, in part because the direction itself doesn't seem to have extended beyond the blocking stage - deciding where everyone stands. Too often is the Chorus left immobile, locked in a semi-circle facing the audience as the action takes place in front. This use of a chorus may work on a bigger stage with a bigger cast, where the performance space can be broken into different sections, keeping the eye interested and awake, but here it feels stilted. The actors are too close to the audience to become a faceless chorus and so must respond to the action as it happens. Sadly this means they have no option but to react through an increasingly repetitive repertoire of stock facial expressions. They need more freedom and support to create genuine responses related to their characters' experiences but this kind of realism never materialises. Conversely, if they were aiming for a more traditional and anonymised chorus they don't achieve it.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the context for the performances - the set - doesn't effectively produce a sense of place. The faded posters and paint on the walls point in an interesting direction but Hayley Gibbs could have afforded to commit more absolutely to creating an environment and atmosphere strong enough to support the action and performances. The make up too, was surprising. When Polydorus visits Hecuba in a vision following his death, the make up is more reminiscent of an extra on Michael Jackson's Thriller than of the newly dead corpse of the Trojan Prince.
This is a difficult play to stage and the company make a valiant effort but there are too many fault lines in this production to allow it to ever really succeed as anything more than an interesting experiment for a theatre company apparently keen to explore many genres and mediums, theatre and film included.