Call her regal, reserved, or simply remote, Vanessa Redgrave certainly is striking. Imposingly tall, intensely charismatic—That wild white hair! Those impossible blue eyes!—she comes to Washington’s stages at last to anchor the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Euripides’ Hecuba. And in a tragedy grounded in the pitiless, poisonous exercise of power, she delivers a performance of such careful modulation, such controlled force that it’s almost a rebuke in itself.

Hecuba is one of a handful of plays in which ancient Athens’ most iconoclastic tragedian examines the aftermath of the Trojan War, and it’s a grim picture of a conquered people’s bitter subjugation and a victorious nation’s stubborn, self-interested cruelty. Like The Trojan Women, which came 10 years and one notorious wartime atrocity later, it bears the stamp of a writer horrified by a homeland whose brutality he finds increasingly unrecognizable. Little wonder, then, that in retelling the tale of fallen Troy’s enslaved queen and the avalanching griefs that turn her into a monster, the British poet and director Tony Harrison has read words such as “coalition” where other translators have seen “army,” or that he’s aimed his update so pointedly at the heart of American and British foreign policy. And little wonder, given Redgrave’s contained reading and the production’s slick, modern air, that what might have been an excoriation of an experience turns out to be merely an unnerving one.

It opens auspiciously enough, with the chalk-white specter of Matthew Douglas’ Polydorus—son of Hecuba and the dead Trojan king, Priam—imprisoned in a chill spotlight front and center. In a recap startling for the lyricism it brings to a gruesome chronicle, he sets the scene: We’re on the beaches of Thrace, where the Greek army has stopped on its way home from the razed Troy, desperate to propitiate the ghost of Achilles. “His phantom craves my sister for his grave,” explains Douglas’ gracefully mournful princeling, who has himself been murdered for his gold by the Thracian king, Polymestor, to whom his parents had smuggled him for safety before Troy’s fall. Conjuring a sorrowful vision of his widowed mother, who in this single day will be confronted by the death of her last two children, he marks out the play’s territory and retreats, ceding the stage to the living.

And to Es Devlins’ dusty array of tents, rank upon rank of them sprawling up a hillside that looms away into a vast darkness. Like the footlockers squatting outside them, they’re military issue, stamped “U.S.” and “U.K.” here and there, and from the centermost among them an exhausted figure emerges, clad in rags that evoke every refugee woman you’ve ever seen in wartime photojournalism. This is Redgrave’s Hecuba, bent double by her misfortunes and plagued by nightmares of woes yet to come, but still determined to carry herself with some shred of dignity. And immediately, it’s a performance of precisely calibrated physicality: In her opening speech, all fear and foreboding, Redgrave unfolds that lanky frame until she’s a damaged monument of a figure, a tower swaying but still somehow upright. At the chorus’s first response—at her campmates’ hypnotically sung confession that they come, “a herald of horrors,” with news of her daughter’s impending sacrifice—she flings those long arms wide, an albatross’s ungainly pinions spread against a buffeting wind. You expect a beast’s howl, a throat-ripping wail.

But Redgrave takes her cue for this moment—and seemingly for the evening—from the next words Euripides and Harrison give her: “Can’t cry! Can’t keen! A slave’s foul suffering…voice and freedom gone.” The actress clips her way through that line, hollow and shattered, setting the tone for a performance that comes to seem a little too distanced on the whole.

In one respect, however, it’s a generous decision: It leaves room for eloquently subtle and palpably emotional work from Lydia Leonard as Polyxena, the daughter who goes courageously and freely to her death, and from Alan Dobie as Talthybius, the Greek messenger who in a speech of tremendous power recounts the tale of Polyxena’s final, noble gesture at Achilles’ grave. And later, Darrell D’Silva’s standard-issue raving as the blinded Polymestor, upon whom and upon whose sons Hecuba and the chorus exact a terrible vengeance for the murdered Polydorus, suggests that Redgrave’s more restrained approach to unfathomable grief may be the tasteful choice as well as the collegial one.

Not, to be sure, that Redgrave couldn’t lay waste even to a house as big as the Eisenhower if she wanted to go for the audience’s throat. Once Hecuba and her women have taken their appalling revenge, in fact—once Euripides and Harrison have driven home the point that a conqueror’s brutality will breed brutality among even the most civilized of conquered peoples—she folds that expressive body of hers up again, collapsing over the dead son whose weight is too much for her to shoulder, and she lets that animal anguish come tearing out of her at last. Harrowing it is, indeed, to realize that Troy’s queen has been so utterly dehumanized—but after the relative reserve of what’s come before, that realization comes too late. Redgrave’s wails echo naked and raw through an encroaching darkness that settles over the camp, but despite this one unbearable moment, Hecuba leaves you rattled but never rocked, unsettled but never unable to face its implications. Here, and now, that’s something of a disappointment.

What with MetroStage’s Electra and now Hecuba, Washington audiences have been rehearing the standard line on the Trojan War lately—and if you’re sick to the teeth of high-minded disquisitions on honor and hospitality, vengeance and fate, then the Scena Theatre’s The Classics Made Easy—Part I: Thersites, with its dog’s-eye look at that ancient conflict, may be just the tonic.

Who is Thersites? He turns up as a malcontented minor player in various versions of the siege-of-Ilium story, from Joyce and Shakespeare all the way back to Homer himself—who, no doubt taking the administration’s official line, describes Thersites as “full of obscenities, teeming with rant, all for no good reason, insubordinate…the ugliest man who ever came to Troy.”

Here, though, he’s the star of his own epic, courtesy of Scena’s artistic director, Robert McNamara, whose stream-of-consciousness monologue lets the scabrous soldier poke sarcastic fun at everything from Homer’s heroic tone to the foibles of leaders ancient (Agamemnon, Odysseus) and modern (guess who). Even wiseacre rethinks come in for a smack, as in this one’s broadly amusing bit that finds Thersites choking in the spotlight when he’s called on to replace an ailing poet at the annual Athenian slam. (“Muse…fuckin’ muse, help me, I’m dyin’ up here.”) Apparently ad-libbing an epic ain’t as easy as the sneering Thersites would like to believe.

Carter Jahncke’s performance can be gratingly obvious—think Jack Nicholson as a boozy, blind, bitter Forrest Gump retailing his stories outside the walls of Troy—and our antihero seems a little too pleased sometimes with the sophomoric nicknames he comes up with for the vain, posturing “heroes” whose characters he so thoroughly assassinates. And in the end, the play never transmutes its basic anti-establishment posture into anything like a coherent overall point. Still, its snarks can be satisfyingly literate, and at a brisk hour, it’s a relatively painless way to get an alternate take on history and its questionable heroes.CP

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