The face on the poster tells a story without a word being spoken: a woman’s face etched with grief, defiance in the downturn of the mouth.Theatre-goers are left in no doubt that the Dundee Rep Ensemble’s performance of Euripides’ anti-war tragedy Hecuba is going to be bleak and uncompromising; a narrative with no quarter given. And Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of the play, taken from a literal translation by Fionnuala Murphy, is unflinching from the outset.
“Please don’t walk on the set,” we are advised as we are shown to our seats by torchlight. Disorientated, we quickly realise that the usual proscenium arch has been replaced by a studio set, and that we, the audience, are in the middle of a war-torn desert landscape and tumbled walls. A woman’s body lies prone. Bafta- nominated sound designer Claire Mckenzie provides a disturbing accompaniment of jingoistic sound-bites and military posturing, ending with the ominous voiceover: “Troy has fallen”. At ninety minutes long, and without an interval, the drama could have palled, but the steer by award-winning director Amanda Gaughan and commanding performances from the cast ensure that the audience remain riveted throughout.
Irene Macdougall, already well-known to Dundee audiences, is mesmerising in the title role. Hecuba, the captured queen, is a maelstrom of emotion, spitting with rage at her defeat, only to be overwhelmed by grief as she realises that her only surviving son, Polydorus, has been murdered by ‘family friend’ Polymestor of Thrace, and that her daughter Polyxena is to be sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles. Irene is ably supported by a young, up-and-coming cast including the accomplished Callum O’Neill, (Oysseus/Agamemnon) and Ali Craig, who delivers an agonisingly convincing portrayal of Polymestor, savagely blinded by a vengeful Hecuba. Versatile Emily Winter is both delicate and feisty as The Chorus. The younger members of the cast deserve a special mention. Ncuti Gatwa, as the murdered son Polydorus haunting his mother’s dreams, is certainly a talent to watch out for. Despite this being only his second appearance as part of the Ensemble, Ncuti gives an assured performance in a difficult role, and Caroline Deyga, as his sister Polyxena, is equally confident. The haunting harmonies performed by The Chorus and the murdered siblings must also be highlighted
Even in modern theatre, audiences are unused to, and perhaps squeamish about, scenes of child murder on stage, but as this tragedy unfolds and the young Prince of Thrace (jointly played by Youth Theatre regulars Leon McNair and Erasmus Mackenna) becomes a bloodied victim of Hecuba’s retribution; we are reminded of recent images from Syria and this Greek tragedy, originally penned in 424 BCE, seems suddenly and uncomfortably relevant.
I wondered how the actors deal with performing such an emotive piece in an intimate setting. Ncuti Gatwa revealed that during rehearsals the actors are generally too busy to focus on the emotional subtext, but Leila Kalbassi’s innovative studio set places the actors in the middle of the audience, allowing them to feed off the emotional response. Throughout the play, the murdered siblings remain visible, appearing as bloodied wraiths on ramps between the seats. For O’Neill, this close interaction, although initially daunting, can deliver a much more authentic experience for the actor.
Although the audience isn’t privy to the actual torture of the treacherous Polymestor, the scene where he emerges from the tent, blinded and floundering, is particularly chilling. Craig revealed that he insisted on using prosthetics for the scene, so that he could experience the total blackness of Polymestor’s world for himself. The Thracian king is literally and morally “lost”, struggling, just as Hecuba is, with insurmountable grief and a thirst for vengeance.