Blackbird Theatre
Euripides' Hecuba
A new adaptation by George McWhirter

Dates 29 December 2007 – 12 January 2008 @ 8 pm evenings | Dark 31 December, 1 and 8 January; Matinees: 30 December and 5, 6, and 12 January @ 2 pm; Preview 28 December Venue Vancouver East Cultural Centre

Director John Wright Set/Costumes Marti Wright Lighting John Webber Projections Tim Matheson

Reviewer J H Stape

Mounting a play that dates to about 421 BC is by necessity an act of bravado, the challenges both immediate and obvious: How does one handle the language, the culture gap, the non-modern dramaturgy? Should one appropriate the play for "us," or present it as a museum piece for a handful of Classicists?

Whilst never less than interesting and often compelling, Blackbird Theatre's production of Euripides' Hecuba succeeds mainly in its parts, the stark lighting and brilliant staging abetting the play's ritual and stylized elements, whilst the demotic "adaptation" with its attempt at "with it" relevance pull in another, often contrary, direction, to the gestures and ethos established elsewhere.

The central problem of intermixed registers besets some of the individual performances as it does the language: Stanislavsky meets Euripides and not too happily.

While the action is sometimes presented almost as a highly stylized dance, the all-female cast, draped in black and when playing the male roles sporting marvellously crafted masks, the language provided by Vancouver Poet Laureate George MacWhirter repeatedly flubs and flails, never rising to grief or grandeur. Blame it on today's reduced, worn out idiom – Classical Greek possessed more words to convey grief – or on a poet-adaptor whose take was wholly wrong-ended.

Another oddity here is the decision to mount the play with an all-female cast, a twist, of course, on the all-male ones of the Greek stage, but then the fetish of realism didn't tyrannize, as it now does, and the wearing of masks by all characters emphasized the ritual and cultural aspects of performance.

The Ghost of Polydorus (Anna Cummer) came off looking like Peter Pan on the toot, with the result that the opening Prologue verged on disaster. The more successful gender-benders (abetted by those masks) were Lesley Ewen, who offered a magnificently crafted Polymestor; Carmen Grant, who played both Odysseus and Agamemnon; and Mia Ingimundson, who made an effective Talthybius. But for all that, there was a lack of vocal contrast: the deep male voices that wholly controlled this society – and waged the war that provides the play's setting – were well ... erased.

Hecuba is an impossible role to pull off once the director opts for realism, and Linda Quibell's attempt, though shot through with sincerity and commitment, fell to the Konzept. The victim who in turn becomes a monster is ably dealt with by myth but not well served by the Method. Laara Sadiq's spare Chorus Leader, by contrast, dominated the stage.

Among the evening's decided triumphs was Marti Wright's stark staging and the finely sensitive lighting of John Webber. The projections by Tim Matheson of more recent conflicts (destroyed Berlin and Hiroshima, Vietnam's pain) used as a backdrop could have easily been merely gimmicky but were, instead, moving, and had they and masks been relied upon even more the emotions of angry grief and flint-hearted lack of compassion might have been more comprehensible and involving.

As it was, we were sometimes invited merely to look upon and be appalled, and sometimes invited to be emotionally engaged in a gut-wrenching story. Euripides got lost in the shuffle. For all its unevenness of effect, it's nonetheless well worth catching the brief run of this play, especially before Blackbird goes on a year's sabbatical (there's no production in 2008) to regroup financially.

© 2007 J H Stape