Vengeance Is Hers

Vanessa Redgrave brings to BAM a character who's forced to take justice into her own hands

Redgrave's interpretation of this twisted tale? "The play is a search for justice," she explains. "Hecuba is denied justice. She's denied what is her right by law, and because of this she has to turn to personally exacting it." Redgrave points to a moment in Harrison's translation that cuts to the heart of Euripides' work: "If you allow the law to be corrupted/and nothing's done to punish those who kill/their guests and violate the holy places,/there's no safe centre in the lives of men."

"It's a very political play, but as John Barton said to me, it doesn't have political prescriptives," she says, casually mentioning one of England's preeminent classical-theater artists as though he were the guy next door (which, in Redgrave's world, he may very well be). "And that is what is so extraordinary about Euripides and about doing it now. Audience members undergo a journey into what happens when the law is abandoned, trashed."

Under Redgrave's words lies a world of firsthand experience, from her controversial work with Palestinian groups to her theater work in Croatia with survivors of Tito's concentration camps to her recent lobbying in Washington with the Guantánamo Human Rights Commission. Yet her attitude is anything but doctrinaire or self-righteous. Reaching into her bag, she takes out a notebook and reads something she jotted down by Simone Weil: "Where thought has no place, there is no place for justice or caution." Looking away, she says, "It's surprisingly and horrifyingly easy to be brought into the condition in which you can't think. It certainly happened to me, and I know how I suffered, so I feel it very personally as well as generally."

Grief upon grief: Redgrave as Hecuba
photo: Manuel Harlan
Grief upon grief: Redgrave as Hecuba

The actor as activist: Redgrave's conversation helps one see that her power on the stage and her political passion off it derive from the same source—a compassionate concern for the welfare and dignity of those most overlooked and oppressed among us. "The great thing about theater, and I didn't realize this until I was in Sarajevo, is that it's absolutely essential for resistance, and by that I mean the sanity of our community," she says, preferring to turn the conversation away from herself. "Theater is one of the places we have left."

Harrison wonders in his introduction whether President Bush would "weep for Vanessa Redgrave's Hecuba if he could somehow be tricked into attending a performance." But Redgrave would prefer to provoke reflection rather than tears.

"You've got to ask yourself questions before you can ask others," she says. "All of us in the cast are opening our minds onstage, and in turn we hope the audience will be opening theirs."

Hecuba plays at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House June 17 through 26 (718-636-7100).

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