Euripides' Hekabe
Translated by Gerard Koolschijn
Directed by Peter de Baan

Netherlands premiere by the RO Theater
Rotterdam, Rotterdamse Schouwburg

6 April, 1995

Reviewed by Sallie Goetsch
University of Warwick

The face which confronted us from the posters at the Rotterdamse Schowburg seemed somehow stretched by the camera, but no more foreign, and no more contorted by emotion, than the grieving Eastern European mothers whose faces look out at us from the newspapers. The play's only subtitle was 'Een Vrouw:' for all those unfamiliar with Euripides knew, Hekabe might have been a citizen of the former Soviet Union. She might, indeed, have been any woman in her fifties. 'A Woman,' the caption said. A woman who had reason to be embittered, a woman not to be crossed--but a woman any of us might see on the street. A woman who might be our own mother, grandmother, sister, wife--self. The production was not heavy-handed in its updating, nor so specific that modern parallels detracted from the power of Euripides' play, but it was amazingly and impressively thorough in its assertion that it could have been us up there. The imagery was carefully selected to evoke resonances in all of us, to be disturbingly familiar.

The Rotterdamse Schouwburg is a proscenium stage with a metal curtain like a wall. A small video projector sat unobtrusively at the very edge of center stage in front of it. As the house lights went down we heard the metallic rat-a-tat-tat of a child's drum (or a soldier's; is there a difference, really?) amplified around us and saw Polydorus, a toddler in a T-shirt, projected onto that curtain. A child's voice spoke the prologue while the metal barrier slid silently away to reveal a stark reality outside of place and time which Beckett or Sartre would have recognized.

It was an unforgiving landscape that Judith Lansink gave us, a prison of curves with a floor of sand and grit. The high canvas walls enclosed an acting space made of cut cylinders, broken once by the only vertical lines in the set (leading to the Greek camp) and pierced by a paraboloid tunnel which led like an umbilical cord to the women's quarters. It was also almost shockingly Greek in its symbolism, presenting the womblike interiority of the skene within the visual restrictions of the proscenium.

Set of Hekabe as reconstruced by Stefan Didak.

Our first view of Hekabe herself was in a strobe-quick silhouette, her walking-stick hanging head-down from one hand to make her look armed. She moved with the slow unfocused sleepwalker's tread of the survivors of catastrophe, her makeup smudged but her hair still pulled up neatly into a bun, huddled into a black linen-and- velvet coat underneath which she wore the flowing calf-length dress in unsaturated purple which was common to all three female characters.

Her power was stunning. There was no shrieking or shouting, not even a distortion of Geert de Jong's natural speaking voice, not even in a report of such a nightmare as had just awakened her. But from the moment she appeared Hekabe held us riveted with the very thing which under other circumstances is anathema to tragedy: her naturalism. Peter de Baan's choice of cast and his directorial concept matched well: the physicality of his actors enhanced their psychological plausibility. Hugh Grant lookalike Leopold Witte made an Odysseus who charmed you in spite of yourself; Guus Dam's close-clipped thinning hair, gray stubble, and paunch made a fatcat general of Agamemnon; Herman Naber was a smooth oily politico of a Polymestor. Anne-Martien Lousberg's broad athletic shoulders detracted a bit from the vulnerability of her Polyxena, but there was nothing lacking in her performance.

The production was full of moments of eerie naturalism, from Hekabe's keening, whimpering grief, an agony almost too unbearably real, when she learned of the fates of her two daughters to the small movements of her hands as she wiped away the blood-- frighteningly little--with a tissue after taking her revenge. There were only two thin trickles of red on Polymestor's face when he appeared, one hand covering the rest of the damage. He kept his eyes hidden for a long time, increasing our fear of what was under that hand--but it was only the closed lids which he revealed when he reached out to gather up his sons' abandoned boots and cradle them as he echoed Hekabe's earlier drawn-out anguish.

Naturalism blended flawlessly into symbolism. Polydorus' body, recently reclaimed from the sea, dripped water onto the sand in the shocked silence which greeted the arrival of that pathetic bundle in Talthybius' arms. Once resolved on her revenge, Hekabe smoothed dry sand over the place where Polydorus' body had lain, simultaneously embarking on deceit and giving her child a funeral. Only rarely were the actors permitted to touch one another, and then it was often in deception, as when Hekabe stood to permit Polymestor to kiss her in greeting--and clenched her hands into fists, into claws, behind his back, never quite completing the embrace. Sabrina van Halderen, spectacular as the one-woman chorus and the servant who discovers Polydorus' body, smoothed Hekabe's coat and scarf over her arms when her mistress rebuffed her.

This was a Hekabe which in its starkness, its pared-down cast, and its judiciously cut script found room to put that most characteristic of modern acting techniques, the minute gesture, the tiny expression, into Greek tragedy and make it fit. Without the clutter of a naturalistic setting (or, as far as I could make out, a colloquial style of speaking), details could grab our attention as forcibly as large gestures could have, and hold it until the well- deserved ovation which came at the end.

Sallie Goetsch
University of Warwick

(Sallie Goetsch visited Rotterdam to meet with collaborators in a project to create theatrical software.)