THE idea that the world is growing more terrible and violent by the day is one that recurs throughout human history but there is no better corrective to it than a brief encounter with the work of the Greek playwright Euripides at its most uncompromising.
First seen in Athens around 424BC, his tragedy Hecuba is set in the province of Thrace, where the captured and enslaved women of Troy have been taken after the cataclysmic fall of their city.
As the play opens, the fallen queen, Hecuba, lies sleeping, while her youngest son Polidorus comes to her in a dream, explaining that like his older brothers – who died defending Troy – he is also dead, murdered for gold by the King of Thrace, to whom he had been sent for safekeeping.
So from the outset, we are faced not so much with dramatic tension, as with a mighty litany of loss, agony and revenge, which only darkens as Hecuba’s remaining daughter Polixena is torn from her by the Greeks, to be sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles.
There’s a slight ambivalence about Amanda Gaughan’s striking and intense new in-the-round production of Hecuba, at Dundee Rep, in that it seems uncertain how far it should insist on the contemporary resonances of this story, in an age when rape, abduction and torture are still rife in war zones across the planet.
On the pre-show soundtrack, we hear the crackle of Iraq-style radio communications among troops in the field, and at the end there’s a towering projected image of a man with a machine-gun. For most of the play’s 90-minute length, though, the style and look of the production is fiercely classical, although lifted and intensified by the fierceness of Frank McGuinnness’s 2004 version of the text.
The close-up staging of the piece, in a three-sided studio space created on the Rep’s stage, offers a uniquely intimate and richly-faceted view of Irene Macdougall’s towering performance as Hecuba, so drenched in bitterness, grief and vengeance that we sometimes almost have to shield our eyes from its savage truthfulness.
There is powerful support from Emily Winter’s grief-stricken Chorus, Caroline Deyga’s heartbreakingly dignified Polixena, and Callum O’Neill, perfectly pitched as the Greek general Agamemnon.
There are moments when this great dramatic poem soars into song, in a striking score by Claire McKenzie, and moments of terrible, vivid spectacle surrounding the haunting figure of Ncuti Gatwa’s Polidorus, brilliantly lit by Grant Anderson.
For most of its length, though, this Hecuba is a brave, unblinking journey into a full knowledge of the hell we humans can make of Earth, with or without the help of the gods, and into the deep feminist truth – still widely denied – that women, goaded beyond endurance, can be as violent and vengeful as any man, and cannot be expected to redeem a world in which men commit horrific acts as a badge of honour, and then wait for the “second sex” to bind their wounds and make the world seem bearable again.