Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Saturday 19 October 2019

Hecuba's war and an unreal Alternative


Project Arts Centre, Dublin

The Alternative

Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire

Aislín McGuckin and Zara Devlin in Hecuba at the Project
Aislín McGuckin and Zara Devlin in Hecuba at the Project
Rory Nolan, Arthur Riordan and Karen Ardiff in Fishamble's The Alternative

Emer O'Kelly

Two plays that sum up everything a theatre festival should be about, writes Emer O'Kelly.

In an era when a silly jibe on social media is described as "vile abuse", it's useful to be reminded of what constitutes abuse, vile or otherwise. And when Marina Carr puts pen to paper, it can be expected that she will give full value to language and the actions it describes.

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Carr has an almost uniquely bleak imagination and probes the darkness in the human psyche with a combination of near ghoulish relish and surgically calm detachment.

In her newest play, she brings these qualities to bear on the subject of war and its aftermath. In Hecuba, given a devastatingly effective production by Rough Magic at Project, she plays with the "received" versions of the story of Hecuba, widowed wife of Priam of Troy in the aftermath of the 10 year siege and destruction of the city at the hands of Greek armies led by Agamemnon.

Does it matter? No. The Iliad as well as Euripides' play Hecuba are tales of mythology in the first place, so it can hardly be called a distortion.

Nor is Carr's play a refashioning for the pre-occupation of salvaging women from the hands of misogynistic historians. The tale as she tells it doesn't give us a Hecuba in the shining robes of wronged feminism. She is human and flawed. Oh, how she is flawed. She even sleeps willingly with her husband's murderer.

The shadow of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta and the woman who caused it all by eloping with Hecuba's son Paris, doesn't even hang over the play. Carr implies that the men have forgotten the cause of their setting out to wage war. Now all that matters is victory and revenge.

We are introduced to Hecuba as she is given her husband's head, her captors offering the ultimate insult by not even giving her his body to mourn and bury. But the anguish doesn't stop there. Unable to return to their various kingdoms for lack of a wind to drive their ships, the blood-enraged soldiers demand a sacrifice which will also placate the ghost of their dead hero, Achilles.

Ten years earlier, their leader Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his own small daughter Iphigenia to be granted a fair wind to go to war. Now he is forced by the baying of his mob of soldiers and the brutally pragmatic cynicism of Odysseus, King of Ithaca, to sacrifice the young Polyxena, daughter of Hecuba.

Agonised, and tormented by the child's willingness to be a sacrifice rather than live as a slave, Hecuba consoles herself that at least her youngest child, nine-year-old Prince Polydorus, has been taken from Troy in secret to be sheltered by Priam's ally Polymestor. But with Polymestor's sons held hostage by the all-conquering Agamemnon, he has given the boy over to be slaughtered.

In true Greek tragic fashion, we are not shown his death. But Carr departs from tradition for the death of Polyxena: there is no sight of blood, but we are spared nothing. And the language: oh the language. Aided by her cast and director (Lynne Parker), Carr gives us every ghastly hack and thrust of a sword, every howl of dying men and sacrificed women, every flood of stinking blood-stained tide coming sickeningly alive through the words of Agamemnon and Hecuba herself: screaming to be taken to the sacrificial altar in place of her daughter, on her knees for the first time in her arrogant life.

Euripides had her put out Polymestor's eyes. Carr makes her crawl through a pile of corpses until she finds her small son's body.

This is war, Carr says, then and now. She has more intelligence and taste than to try to be heavy-handed: the analogy is as silent as it is stomach-churningly obvious. She humanises everything, reducing the giants of ancient mythology to men and women we meet on the street, brutalised and tarnished by war.

Brian Doherty's Agamemnon is a towering figure, forcing himself to indifferent savagery as he longs for a more human reality; Aislin McGuckin's Hecuba encompasses all the world's horror in a single woman's soul. They are both extraordinary, as is Owen Roe as the sly Odysseus.

And in an extraordinary feat of ensemble work, there isn't a weak link in cast or technical support, from Sarah Bacon's spare design in the round, lit by Sarah Jane Shiels with sound by Carl Kennedy.


Rory Nolan, Arthur Riordan and Karen Ardiff in Fishamble's The Alternative

Is an alternative political reality more desirable than the one we've got? Jim Culleton's Fishamble company spent two years finding out. The result is The Alternative, a play for Ireland which emerged from a two year national search.

It's by Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney, and is set in Dublin in 2019, during a television debate on the eve of a historic referendum. Ireland is being asked to decide whether or not to leave the UK. Partition has never happened; there has never been a War of Independence nor a civil war. The queen is our head of State.

The debate is at BBC Dublin, between Prime Minister Ursula Lysaght (Karen Ardiff), home from London for the occasion, and the Irish First Minister and leader of the opposition Irish Parliamentary Party, Peter Keogh (Arthur Riordan).

The dialogue is both wicked and intelligent, the one-liners thrown away with the speed of a comet as current affairs producer Richard Devlin (Lorcan Cranitch) and debate presenter John Fitzgibbon (Rory Nolan), both with their eyes on gongs in the next honours list set the scene. Both TV moguls are amused in their separate ways that anybody could wish to leave the UK: it's almost as ludicrous as the idea of anyone wanting to leave the EU. But "of course", they maintain a neutral stance. It is less civilised in the streets, as pro and anti-demonstrators clash along Sackville Street, their activities getting nastier as the evening wears on, and reports drift into the studio. (Terrific video work by co-author Oisin Kearney)

That's one alternative, set up by the authors with, it must be said, a certain sense of favouring the premise of "the union". Their audience, on the other hand, at the performance I saw showed its alternative hand when asked to stand for the national anthem, only to find an Irish language version of God Save the Queen flashed on the screen, and resuming seats in a hail of sniggers.

But there is another alternative presented on stage, in the person of Devlin's schizophrenic daughter Grainne (Maeve Fitzgerald), demanding her father's attention, psychotic episodes included, as, having refused to take her medication, she sinks into an alternative reality in which her mother, recently dead in a car accident, is still alive and communicating with her.

Add in a glamorous assistant producer (Rachel O'Byrne) whom Grainne suspects of sleeping with her father, and a fascist-minded "Leave" demonstrator indulging in a racist rant from the studio floor, (Fionntan Larney) and you have Ireland, alternative and actual in a wicked satire that poses some very apposite questions about our national self-satisfaction concerning our historical choices.

It's given a top-class, edgy, no-expense-spared production under Jim Culleton's fast-paced acute direction, with superb performances from all concerned, and terrific back-up from the on-screen cameos of the street riots.


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