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Haunting Hecuba: The Direction and Design

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

When it came time to choose a “style play” for their second turn at directing in the Bleviss Laboratory Theatre, Brett Dahl found themself drawn to Marina Carr’s 2015 retelling of the Euripidean tragedy Hecuba. Dahl, who is an M.F.A. student in the Department of Drama, gravitated toward the script because of its feminist ethos, because of Carr’s visceral use of imagery, and because they saw in Hecuba’s persecution a metaphor for the marginalization of queer and trans people today.

Dahl’s queering of the play is perhaps most explicit in the casting. There are five named characters, three female and five male, all played by female, trans, or non-binary actors. The only pointed exception is the male actor playing the cynical yet strangely magnetic imperialist, Agamemnon. Hecuba, is, of course, the centrepiece of the play and Agamemnon’s opposite pole, attracting and repulsing him in equal measure. All of the other actors melt in and out of the chorus when it comes time to assume a role, removing a hood or altering their physicality to transform themselves onstage. Dahl’s chorus has no lines; indeed, no chorus is mentioned in the script. Instead, this chorus is an eerie collective of silent watchers, witnessing warily from the shadows, ever present but rarely implicated, haunting the sidelines like shades.

The design, too, is intended to evoke a shadowland, a limbo or purgatory halfway between the worlds of the living and the dead. During their research into grief and mourning in ancient Greece, Dahl and their designers learned that proper burial rites were essential for allowing the souls of the dead to cross over into the afterlife. The notion of a decade-long siege disrupting the natural cycles of birth, life, and death, with all their attendant rites, helped them fully appreciate the horror of Hecuba’s fate. Thus their Hecuba lives in a haunted realm, afflicted by loss and grief, cast into darkness and half-light. At the heart of the set, designed by Lieke den Bakker, is a metaphorical tear, a transparent curtain which cuts horizontally across the stage, hovering above the ruins of Troy like a gateway for ghosts. Skylar Veldhuis’ costumes offer an edgy, androgynous take on classical Greek garb, while Derek Miller’s sound design provides an energetic atmospheric counterpoint to the company’s elegiac singing.

As a director, Dahl is particularly interested to develop fresh ways of using physicality to communicate meaning onstage. To this end, they worked with their actors to discover a loosely choreographed repertoire of idiosyncratic movements: Hecuba gnaws wolfishly at her arms; Odysseus knocks at the side of his head; Polyxena flutters like a pinned bird. This gestural score

expresses each actor’s emotional or psychological understanding of their character through visceral, extralinguistic metaphor. Sly double casting, too, threads through the production: the actor who plays Cassandra is the one who deals the deadly blow to her sister; the actor who murders Polydorous is the same one who informs Hecuba that her son is dead. Through careful attention to theatre’s formal embodiment, Dahl and their actors bring this story of death—and, for survivors, of living past death—poignantly to life.

-by Liam Monaghan

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