Vanessa Redgrave has always been outspoken in her politics. Accepting an Oscar in 1978 after publicly supporting Palestinians, she referred to protestors as "Zionist hoodlums". She was reportedly black-listed. The censorship wasn't limited to Hollywood: in 1984, The Boston Symphony cancelled performances of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex which she was scheduled to narrate. And although she's one of the world's foremost actresses, June's production of Euripides' Hecuba (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) marks only her sixth appearance in New York.
Redgrave's been less sensational lately, but no less active. In 2004, she founded a British political party Peace and Progress, whose agenda includes the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Moreover, this Hecuba, from The Royal Shakespeare Company, makes a clear political statement.
Hecuba is, of course, the queen of the Trojans, and Euripides places her among the captive Trojan women. The set's five tiers of khaki tents create the archetypical refugee camp. In the course of the action, Hecuba loses her children to the Greeks. In cold revenge, she lures the Greek leader Polymestor into her tent, where she blinds him and murders his two children. Polymestor, needless to say, is livid. He's murdered Hecuba's son after being entrusted with the boy's safety but, thundering in a classic rage, he refers to the Trojan women as "these terrorists from Troy who have destroyed me - savage, savage women." It's a jarring moment. The word itself is so modern - and undeniably current.
In another political allusion, the translator, Tony Harrison (who's known for being a political poet) calls the Greek forces as a "coalition". In this context, it's a word equally specific in connotation.
Topical content would be unremarkable in a lesser production, but this Hecuba is brilliant. Redgrave's performance could hardly be more powerful. She enters crawling from her tent, stunning us immediately with her ghost-white hair. Her performance stresses the gesture - specifically, the gesture of raising her arms over her head. We're sometimes taught to choose a gesture that expresses the character's core, but Redgrave's gesture is mutable. It's a metaphor for the character, embracing her changing positions. It indicates, by turns, surrender, assault or mockery. And, in a chilling moment after the murders, when she emerges from her tent and cries "I killed them", it means victory.
And her sense of gesture is otherwise keen, as well; she makes clear, simple, choices. She slaps herself when she tells herself "Just act! Just act!" And she washes guilt from her hands using flowers for soap.
The production was originally directed by Laurence Boswell, whose name was removed in response to London reviews. No director is named in the program. Whatever changes were made, as it stands, the staging is wonderful. Throughout, it has an intellectual stage detachment. During one conversation, the queen and her doomed daughter look at us, and, in another moment, Redgrave addresses the audience in an aside, commenting on the action. "I'm not making any headway," she says, and it's at this point that Hecuba is most real to us.
This reserved British interpretation is well suited to the play. Hecuba doesn't present us with the madness or the mystery of Medea. Hecuba knows exactly what she's doing - and so do we. What's shocking is not demonic, but rational.
When the chorus sings, it's in a sort of throaty chant, a wonderful modern response to the playwright's needs, accompanied by a keyboard, a cello, and percussion. The women, barefoot and in scarves, are wearing gorgeous shades of purple and green, in patterned fabrics, an elegant design rather than the realism of a POW camp.
By the way, critical response was disappointingly mixed. Apparently, American critics don't recognize great acting unless it's dripping in emotion. Vanessa Redgrave is an actress of enormous and classic stature, and as Hecuba, she challenges her audience to discuss the character with her. But the production's not without heart. It's ends with the picture of grief, Hecuba wailing for her lost son.
- Steve Capra