Translated by Janet Lembke and Kenneth J. Reckford
Directed by Douglas Campbell
Alumni Theatre, Carleton University
November 18-20 & 25-27, 1993
Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Michigan,
E-mail: sgoetsch AT umich.edu
There was a mainstage production of Hecuba at Brown in the fall of 1987. The directorial choices, the casting, the delivery, the interweaving of Greek and English during particularly emotional moments between Hecuba and Polyxena (the actress playing Hecuba was a Greek-American and not afraid of the original text), the ritual wails of the chorus--all were intensely powerful, producing shivers and tears in the spectators. When the chorus exited at the end, leaving Hecuba huddled on the sand, clutching and sifting it, the audience was so stunned that a long, reverent silence preceded the wild applause. A friend of mine walked out of it and said 'After Euripides, why did anyone else bother?'
But that was a production which had tremendous resources, human and material, at its disposal. The same cannot be said of the Carleton Hecuba. Yet like Polyxena, Douglas Campbell and his cast have acted nobly in the face of adversity.
The obstacles facing the production included untrained actors, short rehearsal period, inadequate rehearsal space, a last-minute replacement of the actor playing Polydorus, and the complete lack of a theater department at Carleton University. Worse, I saw their production not live but on video. The video was well-done, using more than one camera, and a good perspective, but no recording can ever do justice to live performance - which is just as well for those of us who work on stage rather than film.
In spite of all that, the ensemble created an effective production, a credit to the considerable effort and enthusiasm which went into it. The prominent cheekbones of the three-quarter masks on the women evoked grief and interacted well with the lighting. The chorus of six women divided the lines among themselves and delivered them with intensity. There is much to be said for a chorus which dances at least and preferably sings as well, but this chorus was not reduced to tedium by its delivery. The choreuts kept up a good pace and spoke with feeling as they narrated the fall of Troy.
Hecuba herself, played by a first-time actress, was the best of the cast, though the aged quaver of her voice was overdone and her words and movements did not always match. It was jarring to see her stand several feet away from Polyxena and hear her speak of clinging as close to her daughter as oak on ivy, and disappointing that she made no distinction between lyric and trimeter and underwent no emotional change corresponding to the fact that Hecuba sings no more after naming Polymestor as Polydorus' murderer. That, however, is as likely the fault of the translators as of the actress or the director.
And when she wailed her recognition of Polydorus, I got chills, even in broad daylight in front of a TV screen.
The actors, on the whole, showed their inexperience, but not to the point where it kept the story from being moving. The set and lighting were very well done, the masks (always a risk in a contemporary Western production) more effective than intrusive. The costumes were appropriate if generally uninspired. Hecuba's was the best: the cut of it flattered her immensely and it did not look either tritely 'Greek' or glaringly anachronistic. Polymestor looked like the leader of a Mongol horde, too obvously a foreigner, and strayed occasionally into unnecessary racial caricature. The blocking was weak, neither taking advantage of all the obvious stage-directions in the text nor taking any particular chances.
But it definitely had its moments. The electronic amplification of Polymestor's cries of agony was overdone and unnecessary, and the spotlight on Hecuba's exaggerated grief at the show's very end was frankly tacky. On the other hand, the chorus' laughter at and bodily torment of the blind Thracian king was gruesomely riveting. It clashed oddly with their expressions of reserved sympathy, but the hostile-but- pitying choruses of Euripides are not easy to handle. Here, at least, was a definite directorial decision, a risk taken. The production could have stood to take a few more.
The true value of this production, however, is not in the effect it produced on the stage but the effect it had on those who produced it. The Carleton Hecuba brought strangers to Greek tragedy into what had been unknown and fearsome territory. Douglas Campbell wrote to me at some length about the experience, and I wish to pass some of his words on to you:
'One of the most gratifying aspects of the project from my point of view was the discovery of how accessible the play is, and how completely it contains within itself everything the audience needs for its understanding....Whenever there are allusions to events or figures outside of the play, what matters is what these events or figures mean--at the moment of speaking--to the characters on the stage. And the communication of that meaning can safely be left to the actors'.
'For me, one result of the experience of directing this play is a certain demystification of Greek tragedy....Hecuba is, after all, simply a play. Directing it I dealt with all the elements that I deal with when directing any other play: character, action, space, words, story, and the rest. It requires exactly the kind of attention that Shakespeare or Orton or Pirandello does: the audience has to be convinced that these people are doing these things, and that it's interesting that they should be doing so. There is a certain formality in the way the story is told, but then all worthwhile plays have their specific formal demands, and it is a routine responsibility of the director to identify them, deal with them, and make them work'.
If nothing else but Campbell's willingness to treat Greek tragedy as drama rather than an object of religious reverence had come of this production, it would still have been eminently worthwhile. But more, in fact, resulted from the Carleton Hecuba than the director's enlightenment. In the face of adverse conditions and the expectations of its own production team, the play drew a substantial audience, and the applause I heard at the end of the tape was not dubbed in. And that success may well encourage Carleton to undertake more classical productions in the future.