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WASHINGTON, D.C.Hecuba, the legendary Trojan queen who lost everything when her city was leveled by the Greeks, was spotted here earlier this month, dragging her luggage in front of the Watergate Hotel and chain-smoking on the Kennedy Center lanai. While the appearance of a war widow in our nation's capital these days should come as no surprise, there was something unusually haunting about this one: Naturally regal (even in slightly tatty jeans and a head scarf), tall to the point of statuesque (though somewhat hobbled by age), and with the gentlest blue-green eyes imaginable, she still conveys the glamour of someone not destined to carry so much cumbersome grief.
Vanessa Redgrave is one of those rare English actors that live their parts, a Brit with genuine respect for the gritty American tradition launched by the Actors Studio in the early '50s, just a few years before this scion of one of England's leading theatrical families made her start. Stateside for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Euripides' Hecubabeginning a two-week run at BAM on Fridayshe can't help exuding the mute emotional turmoil of a refugee as she schleps around the capital during the show's critically praised Kennedy Center run. Sitting down for an interview outside the theater on a glorious spring morning, Redgrave, lighting cigarette after Natural American Spirit cigarette, speaks in a somber tone that seems appropriate to both her tragic character and our own catastrophe-riddled time.
Why the decision to do one of the lesser-known (and starkly gruesome) Greek tragedies now? "I didn't know Hecuba, but I knew it had to be about the Trojan War," she says. "I had done Michael Cacoyannis's film The Trojan Women, made in Spain just before Franco died, and basically I wanted to do another Euripides."
The political freight of Hecubawhich, like The Trojan Women, grapples with the fate of the Trojan queen and her women who are cast into slavery after the conquest of their citywould seem to be the obvious lure for Redgrave, whose liberal activism has, as in the case of her Julia co-star Jane Fonda, turned her into an easy target for conservatives with axes to grind. Still, she contends that her reasons are first and foremost poetic, namely Euripides and Tony Harrison, the production's English translator.
"Nothing has any validity in my profession if it isn't first artistic," she says. "I revere Tony Harrison. Of course Tony is very political. But that isn't why he translates the Greeks."
Harrison, however, is perfectly clear on Hecuba's pointed contemporary resonance. For him, the protagonist serves as an emblem for the suffering inflicted on civilians by military devastation, whether in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, or Iraq. She is, in short, where the damage, "collateral" and otherwise, traumatically registers. "Hecuba walks out of Euripides from two thousand five hundred years ago straight onto our daily front pages and into our nightly newscasts," he writes in the introduction to his translation. "She is never out of the news. To our shame she is news that stays news."
Though the tragedy fell out of favor in the 19th century, it was routinely revived during periods of crisis in the 20th, which explains its current Anglo-American resurgence. Last fall Clare Higgins led the cast of a touted Donmar Warehouse staging in London, while in New York Kristin Linklater, the renowned voice teacher, made her return to the stage in a production at the Culture Project. And the Pearl has just announced it's doing the play next season.
Redgrave would seem to be perfect casting, which is why the RSC production persevered through rather disastrous reviews during its London run. (Harrison, in fact, has remounted the work originally directed by Laurence Boswell, resulting in more favorable notices for the Kennedy Center.)
"I really believe we are doing the play justice, whatever anyone says," Redgrave contends. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be looking forward to going anywhere with the production."
Her loyalty to Euripides' strange and complex tragedy is compelling. Hecuba is not a straightforward anti-war lament in the manner of The Trojan Women, but a kind of object lesson on the way in which wars, particularly elective ones like the invasion of Troy (provoked by a two-timing wife), demoralize through the state-authorized abrogation of fundamental law and order. To willfully unleash destruction on a foreign people is to open a Pandora's box, allowing repercussions and reprisals to shatter the values and safeguards of democratic life.
Hecuba is an enslaved queen forced, in the wake of her manifold losses, to suffer not only the gratuitous sacrifice of her virginal daughter Polyxenaoffered up to the ghost of Achillesbut also the discovery of her youngest son, Polydorus, hacked to death for his gold by the queen's supposed ally Polymestor. In both instances, Hecuba appeals to the Greeks' sense of morality and fair play, asking them to spare her daughter and take revenge on Polymestor for his crime. Both times she is rebuffed, first by the shameless double-talk of Odysseus (think Donald Rumsfeld, only more mealymouthed) and second by the more sympathetic yet equally spineless Agamemnon, who under the guise of political necessity turns a blind eye to the descent into further barbarity. The play's final atrocities are perpetrated by Hecuba, who's tacitly allowed to take retribution into her own hands, which she does by blinding Polymestor and murdering his two young sons.
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."
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 sourcea 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).