March 20, 1997
Reviewed by D.J.Conacher
University of Toronto
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Trent University has a lively and flourishing Department of Classics, one of the best among the smaller Ontario universities. Each year, for the past five years, the Classics Drama Group has produced a Greek Tragedy in English.(1) Much praise for this accomplishment should be given to Martin Boyne, the faculty member of the Department who has directed all of the productions and, of course, to the successive groups of talented and enthusiastic student actors. Finally, a fair measure of credit should be given to the instruction (mostly by Professor Ian Storey) in those courses in Greek Tragedy, both in Greek and in translation, which have provided most of these student actors and have been responsible for much of their interest and enthusiasm.
This year's production was Euripides' Hecuba. Readers who know this tragedy will be aware of the dramatic challenges and the interesting interpretative difficulties (or, possibly, 'choices') which it provides. The aged and widowed Trojan Queen, captive of the victorious Achaeans, suffers two major catastrophes during the action: the horrendous sacrifice of her maiden daughter, Polyxena, to the shade of the slain hero, Achilles, and the murder of her young son Polydorus, slain for his gold by his 'protector', the treacherous Thracian King Polymestor. Most critics agree that the noble Queen undergoes a change in character (not perhaps usual in Greek Tragedy) during the course of the action. Some feel that this change consists in a gradual recovery, after her initial despair, of power and stature, as she successfully achieves her vengeance on the wicked Polymestor. Others feel, on the contrary, that the change is from a certain resigned nobility to a kind of moral decline, both in her pleas for help from the enemy King Agamemnon in return for the sexual favours of her daughter, Cassandra, and in the particularly fiendish form (the blinding of Polymestor and the murder of his children) which her vengeance takes. This production, following the production notes of the excellent translation by C.W. Marshall which was used, opts strongly for the first of these interpretations.
The enactment of the role of Hecuba is, of course, essential in any production of this play and this is particularly the case for the interpretation which, as I have just mentioned, was chosen for this one. Samantha Jones turned in a magnificent performance in this most demanding role. I was particularly impressed by Ms. Jones' success in letting us see the changes in the Queen's mood -- at first despairing, then pleading, pitifully, to Odysseus (for the life of Polyxena) but more confidently in her ultimately successful appeal for Agamemnon's complicity, and finally triumphant--and merciless--in her vengeance over Polymestor. In sharp contrast to the presentation of Hecuba, that of Polymestor moves from specious ingratiation to the savage frustration of blinded and impotent fury. If the enactment of Hecuba is particularly impressive for its sustained development, Stephen Kennedy's Polymestor certainly provides the most striking tour de force of elemental fury.
The part of Polyxena (the other role which, along with that of Polymestor, would have been played by the original 'second actor') was taken by Amy Gowan, a veteran from two former performances with the Drama Group. Though less 'theatrical' a part than that of Polymestor, it is, in some ways, no less demanding. Miss Gowan played Polyxena at first with poignancy and then, with a sudden (and dramatically intended) access of power, as the maiden confronts the flinty Odysseus, who is to lead her to her doom.
Comparisons are invidious and would be particularly so in seeking to give due credit to one or another of the other performances in this production, which varied only in degrees of excellence. one was particularly impressed by the variety and, where appropriate, the contrasts, in the various characterizations presented. Academic purists might claim that this degree of 'personalization' contradicted the more formalized presentation of 'character' proper to Greek Tragedy. However, such a criticism loses most of its point when the production consciously avoids, as this one does, most of the theatrical conventions, such as masks and staging (the setting, as we are reminded in the program notes, is 'early in our own century') of the original productions.
The Chorus in modern productions of Greek Drama must always present almost insuperable problems. Here a Chorus of six (in place of the original twelve or, as some argue, fifteen) captive Trojan women, successfully complemented the characters, by their words and movements, in the imitation of various emotional effects of the action. The presentation of the Chorus also accepted the ingenious suggestion by the translator of replacing choral song by the successive speaking, by individual 'choristers', of short passages specifically marked, for this effect, in the translation. Occasionally, this novel method of communication made the thought sequences in these 'choruses' a little difficult to follow. However, as one came to expect of this well-trained production, the choral group performed its difficult task expertly and, for the most part, effectively.
This was indeed a memorable production of Euripides' Hecuba, which surely ranks very high among University productions of Greek Tragedy.
(1) A review of earlier productions by the Classics Drama Group at Trent University and a description of the unique and challenging physical space can be found in I.C. Storey, 'Tragedy in the Pit (Medea)', in Didaskalia 3.1.
University of Toronto
(Professor Conacher is an internationally known scholar, but not a computer person.)