Camden Fringe 2010
If you’re going to see a tragedy, it’s always a good idea to make it a Greek one: never is the bloodshed higher, the horror greater or the poetry more direct and enjoyable than with the Hellenic forefathers of modern theatre. In this production of the classical Hecuba, most of the classic elements of Greek theatre are hit: the horror is delectably gruesome, the high theatrical form is clearly stated and performed, and the story quivers and echoes with beautiful poetry. However, not all is perfect in this recreation of the end of the battle of Troy: this feels like a great piece slightly frayed around the edges, slightly out-of-focus in places that deserve blazing light. Still, a very accomplished production from a young company, and one of the highlights of this year’s Camden Fringe, just in need of a little fine-tuning.
The story of Hecuba is about as classic as you can get: the Queen of Troy, robbed of her power by the Greek conquerors (ie. those of the Wooden Horse), begins a campaign of bloody revenge, highlighting the power of women in a world ruled by men. Often used as an allegory for women’s rights and anti-patriarchy, it was nice to see a production that didn’t hang too heavily on some of the more tired lines that make this piece a goldmine for feminists and post-feminists everywhere: still present as an element, but certainly not thrust on the audience too violently! Instead the story was allowed to unfold atmospherically and theatrically, although there was, at times, a sense of atmosphere being more important to the director than stagecraft: the stage was often far too smoky, which, coupled with a rather dim lighting rig, made seeing faces and expressions a real challenge. A smoke-machine is all well and good for a little ambiance, but this was a little excessive.
There also seemed to be quite a strong focus on tableaux over naturalistic scenes: again, a very atmospheric decision, and the scenarios and situations evoked were striking, but these seemed less to expand on the story and more create an environment in which to tell them: not a necessary device so much as an addition. Still, all of this did create a remarkably atmospheric piece, which is nothing to be sniffed at: if the story did lurch a little, the audience were still transported, and while both would have been nice, one is better than none!
It’s not as if the story was completely tossed aside either: when the smoke cleared a little and the lights brightened, there was plenty going that deserves appreciation. Natalie Lesser’s Hecuba may be a little young, but her horrific lurching from tragedy to tragedy was remarkably believable: impressive for a heroine often seen as too tragic for her own good! The central male performance of Polymestor by Simon Wegrzyn swung delightfully between villain and hero, and his deft hand at rejecting and commanding the audience’s empathy was impressive indeed. The rest of the male performances were decent, but a little shallow, and the massive chorus of Trojan Women were most effective in their tableaux: there were just a few too many of them for the stage space, making their movements a little too cramped and stilted. A smaller chorus may have found it easier to perform some of their interludes, and yet would the tableaux have been as strong and evocative (none moreso than the panted seduction of Polymestor and the removing of his eyes)? Again, it seems that atmosphere won.
I could keep listing other situations where story was sacrificed for atmosphere (beautiful singing which was eerie and evocative, yet stopped the story dead; a beautiful reflective symbol on the floor which could have resembled the floor of a temple, but was clearly more of a device for some rather striking lighting effects), but I’d just be listing many a beautiful moment that sent shivers down my spine, but didn’t advance what we were seeing much if at all. If these effects had been more important within the plot, or had helped move us towards the end of the piece, I’d be praising them to the high heavens, as they were all incredibly detailed, evocative, and beautifully orchestrated: but seeing how they were, mostly, window-dressing, it’s a shame that they were seemingly given more time than the simple basics of acting, blocking and performing the story.
Again, it’s not as if the basics here were poor: when you could see past the snazzy effects, the performance itself was generally good, and a worthy version of a classic play. It may be a bit unseemly to compare this young company to Hollywood, but it’s the same thing you see in blockbusters all the time these days: good acting and a classic story clouded a bit too heavily in special effects. If the effects tie into the story, fantastic, it will probably enhance the final product, but make sure that they are essential: otherwise, the story will just get lost in the smoke.