Space Upstairs, Project Arts Centre
What's Hecuba to us, or we to Hecuba? In Greek myth the character suffers such unimaginable tragedy as to be almost unfathomable – a vanquished queen and bereaved mother to 50 dead children and a slain husband, consumed with wrath and finally transformed into an animal. Marina Carr's stunning version, from 2015, does something like the opposite making her suffering almost unbearably human.
In Rough Magic’s affecting, deeply unsettling production, a master class in tension, the scale of tragedy is made rivetingly intimate. The audience encircles the action, where Sarah Bacon’s sparse, scattered set and military fatigues convey the aftermath of a more contemporary war, against Carl Kennedy’s disquieting sound. That fits Carr’s dialogue, searingly graphic in description, and intensely personal in perspective. Everyone is their own chorus, narrating themselves, interpreting others, expressing reflection, contradiction, pain, desire. In Carr’s treatment, this ancient story has developed a vivid psychology.
Director Lynne Parker likewise shrinks all sense of distance: in the vice-grip of the performance the bitterness of war feels too close for comfort: "I think, this isn't war, this is genocide," says Aislín McGuckin's poised, ethereal Hecuba, no longer a vengeful Fury, but a portrait of dignity in despair. As Agamemnon, the prickly, paranoid victor, Brian Doherty has as much self-awareness: "It seems I terrify people," he reflects, more exhausted than exultant.
That the world is upside down is clear: commanded to bring Hecuba's young son for execution, Ronan Leahy's conflicted Polymester realises, like Hecuba, that barbarity has become policy. Still more resonant in these times, is the preternatural resolve of children against this adult insanity. Gillian Buckle's stoic Polydorus movingly asks Agamemnon that, if he will not be spared, to spare his mother the knowledge: "Don't break her completely." Zara Devlin's insightful Polyxena, a sacrifice to appease the spirit of Achilles, has just as few illusions about the state of the world. "But these are different times," Hecuba explains of war's depravity. "Are they?" she answers.
Against that chill, the play’s eroticism can seem more superficial. That Agamemnon’s desire flashes with conquest is grimly plausible; that Hecuba would be distracted by his “sapphire” eyes over the mutilated bodies of her family, and acquiesce after the butchering of her daughter, is less so. It’s a small rupture that makes them seem again more mythic than mortal. How we see each other, though, is in the texture and the form of this compelling staging, magnifying human nature in extraordinary circumstances, speaking directly to our anxious age.
Runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until Sunday, October 6th