That Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy about the brutal aftermath of war still resonates is, sadly, not in doubt. Harrowing stories of atrocities heaped on civilians emerge from just about every war zone on the planet. Even so, updating the tragedy to the present day is not a straightforward task. There’s the question of whether you retain the original references or adapt the story to a particular or generic modern conflict; and there’s the awkward presence of the gods. Caroline Bird’s new version has both bleak beauty and sardonic humour and Christopher Haydon’s harrowing production delivers searing performances, but neither quite resolves these uncomfortable issues, and the staging, though upsetting, makes less impact than it could.
The action unfolds in the mother and baby unit of a modern prison. Here Hecuba, erstwhile queen of Troy, is confined, along with the lone Chorus: a heavily pregnant woman (Lucy Ellinson), shackled to a bed-frame with handcuffs. Despite their difference in status, both women are now the spoils of war. This doesn’t stop Hecuba from flaunting her superiority at every turn. Played by Dearbhla Molloy with bitter, defiant hauteur, she initially has little sympathy left to spare for her vulnerable room-mate. It is only at the end, as all hope is stripped away, that she demonstrates fellow-feeling.
The performances are raw and intense, none more so than that of Louise Brealey, who plays three women: the crazed Cassandra, the bereaved wife and mother, Andromache, and the seductress, Helen. The staging contrasts the strength of the women with their impotence and emphasises the fact that while blame for the war is deposited at the feet of one woman or another, it is the men who initiated the conflict and who now parcel women out like objects.
It’s a desperate and disturbing scenario, but there is something amiss here. The gods, Poseidon and Athena, played on video by Roger Lloyd Pack and Tamsin Greig, are callous and petty, but the questions about their significance or insignificance and hence about fate, hypocrisy and responsibility don’t feel urgent enough and they sit oddly with the iPhones and guns. Meanwhile the characterisation is too much on one note to convince you that these are real, subtle women ripped from a real background. Even the horrific fate of Andromache’s infant son doesn’t destroy you as it should. Not really engaging you with the women’s plight, the staging ultimately becomes more strident than desolate.