Euripides is tricky. On the surface, his plays look like open, heartfelt tragedies, full of sorrow and anguish. Inside, as many directors and actors have disconcertingly discovered, they’re full of ironies and logic-chopping arguments that detonate undesired laugh lines in the wrong places. An ally of the Sophists, those experts at winning their cases with false arguments, Euripides is a master at playing both sides against the middle—nowhere more so than in his Hecuba, a sardonic, blood-chilling lesson in the futility of revenge. The widowed queen of Troy, dethroned and enslaved by the conquering Greeks, finds herself trapped on the shore of Thrace when the homebound Greek fleet is becalmed there. She’s compelled to sacrifice her last surviving daughter, Polyxena, to get the winds going again. Agamemnon, who does the compelling, sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the same reason on the way to Troy: What goes around comes around.
Poet Tony Harrison’s production (a previous director was dismissed after unhappy reviews in London) tries to move Euripides’ forbidding, razor-edged object in two directions at once, sculpting the dark ironies with one hand and pushing them toward a topical Mideast political meaning with the other (wholly irrelevant words like “refugee” and “terrorist” crop up in the text). As inevitably happens when people walk bidirectionally, the result falls flat, producing static stage pictures; a stagnant, indeterminate atmosphere; and pallid acting, schizophrenically divided between Vanessa Redgrave’s throaty, toneless muttering of the title role and the hollow rhetoricizing of most of her colleagues. The power and illumination that are in Euripides’ work barely get broached.