Hecuba is an ancient Greek tragedy originally written by Euripides around 424 BC. Our version is by Marina Carr.
In 2015, our Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman directed Marina Carr's reimagining of the legend of Hecuba in a visceral new play. A searing vision of war, womanhood and courage, inventively told.
David Ajao – Nepotolemus
Nadia Albina – Cassandra
Derbhle Crotty – Hecuba (pictured)
Ray Fearon – Agamemnon
Edmund Kingsley – Polymestor
Amy McAllister – Polyxena
Chu Omambala – Odysseus
Lara Stubbs – Xenia/Singer
Director – Erica Whyman
Designer – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting – Charles Balfour
Music – Isobel Waller-Bridge
Sound – Andrew Franks
Movement – Ayse Tashkiran
The story of Hecuba
The play opens at the end of the Trojan War with the city in flames and devastation.
Hecuba, the Queen of a defeated Empire, sits on her husband's throne clutching his severed head with the corpses of her sons lying at her feet. Her two daughters and her son Polydorous, who is in hiding, are all she has left in the world.
The victorious warrior king Agamemnon confronts Hecuba. He is impressed by her dignity in the face of all the horror, but plans to find and kill her son.
Polymestor, King of Thrace, and uncle to Polydorous arrives with his own two sons to learn that Troy has fallen. Agamemnon takes the boys as ransom and demands Hecuba's last remaining son in return.
Polymestor brings Polydorous to Agamemnon. Polydorous faces his death with courage, asking Agamemnon that the news of his death should be kept from his grieving mother.
Fears for the future
Hecuba and her daughters have been loaded onto Greek ships where they are left, hungry and fearful.
Cassandra, Hecuba's eldest daughter foresees future torments and death while Polyxena, Hecuba's younger daughter, tries to comfort her mother and confesses that she and the Greek warrior Achilles were lovers during the war. We learn that Achilles was killed in front of Polyxena by her brother.
The Greek soldiers are getting impatient, they want to get home, but there is no wind to sail the ships by.
The tired army is held together by a thread. Many believe the dead Achilles to be the real hero of the war and don't believe Agamemnon is the rightful leader.
Odysseus suggests that a sacrifice is required, for the wind and for Achilles. It's agreed that Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena should be slaughtered.
Odysseus takes Polyxena from her mother, who after begging to go in her daughters' place, accompanies Polyxena to her death.
A grieving mother
Agamemnon is moved by Hecuba's grief and takes her to his tent where she is bathed and given food and wine. She and Agamemnon talk of love and of their abandoned homes.
The following morning Hecuba discovers the body of her son, Polydorous, and her grief overtakes her completely.
Interview with Marina Carr
Dan Hutton spoke to writer Marina Carr about Hecuba for our newspaper Radical Mischief.
'The Greeks' - as the playwrights working in ancient Greece are commonly known - are currently seeing a bit of a resurgence in British theatre. Even plays written in the last century are getting the Greek treatment, as theatre-makers look to ancient forms to better understand the questions facing us today. This is no less true for Marina Carr who returns to the RSC with her play Hecuba this autumn, and for whom the Greek canon tells us a lot about the world we experience.
Creatures of passion
“I think we're absolutely jaded with the rational” Marina tells me when I ask why she believes this trend has emerged.
“We're jaded with being told A plus B equals C. We're jaded with being told how to live.”
In her opinion, the Greeks tap into a community trying to “invent” itself in the wake of sudden shocks.
“The last time there was such an immense shift was probably after World War Two; now, there's an absolute fragmentation of who we are and how we define ourselves. What we really are, are creatures of passion. Passions are what we live by, despite what everyone tells us. We're not rational creatures.”
Marina, whose plays include Portia Coughlan and The Cordelia Dream, feels that Hecuba's story has been misrepresented.
“I've always disagreed with the legacy of Hecuba and the way she's been treated, so I wanted to argue a bit with how she's been handed down to us.”
Hecuba, in Homer's Iliad and later in Euripides' play of the same name, was the wife of King Priam and bore eighteen children during a time of immense conflict.
Marina, however, takes issue with a major plot-point in her narrative: “I fundamentally disagreed with the idea of her killing her two little grandsons in revenge. I just never bought that. So I've written my own version of what might possibly have happened on that beach.”
According to the legend, Hecuba is driven by revenge, but Marina suggests her actions are less straightforward and come from a deep-seated sense of injustice.
“Her daughter Polyxena is taken from her to be sacrificed and she has to endure the death of her last son and husband. She has to endure being the mother of Cassandra, the prophetess... so she has quite a lot on her plate”.
The mythology of humanity
Marina has always been drawn to these ancient myths, in a busy, often superficial world, it's the depth of human understanding that these plays demonstrate which draw her back time and time again.
“I think we're all, to ourselves, mythological. And we're all huge. Unfortunately, everyone else on the planet thinks exactly the same,” she jokes.
“The myths tackle the idea that our passions are huge. The investment in living is huge. The consequences are huge. And sometimes we forget that when it's all about the laundry and the school run and the job.”
Whilst those mundane aspects of life take over, the Greeks always have space to contemplate massive ideas which affect all of us.
“The purity of that world is what attracts me.”
Marina's version of Hecuba brings to life private thoughts, making the play resonate for a modern audience. Above that, the story also helps us understand what it means to live within a society, in much the same way the Greek playwrights themselves were trying to invent an idea of the world.
“In a way we've come full circle as we're also trying to define a series of narratives and powerful codes by which we live.”
These huge plays, Marina believes, are about “powerful emotion that we all carry around, even though we try to sift through it because our passions are so huge. But I think they were onto something trying to define and contain the immensity of what it is to be alive.”