Marina Carr’s adaptation of the Ancient Greek tragedy, Hecubca, originally written by Euripides, was directed by Rough Magic co-founder, Lynne Parker and performed during the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2019. Now, the play has been filmed for screen and will play in cinemas across the country on Thursday 15th September. The play focuses on the aftermath of The Trojan War when the victors, under the leadership of Agamemnon (Brian Doherty), lay siege to Troy, killing all the men and enslaving the women. The Queen of Troy, Hecuba (Aislín McGuckin), has lost her husband and sons to the war and is asked to make one last sacrifice, a sacrifice that proves a step to far. We spoke with Lynne Parker about the play, bringing it from stage to screen, and Marina Carr’s unusual approach which sees actors perform as both characters and narrators.
What made you want to bring this adaptation of Hecuba’s story to the stage? I’ve never seen this technique before; where a character is speaking to another character and describing what they are doing and what they are thinking about,all at the same time. I thought it astonishing. The technique got right inside the story and a timeframe that expanded and contracted in a fluid way. That was very exciting. It was challenging but very exciting for the actors because you’re both completely in the moment and objectively distanced from the moment. It takes a bit of getting used to, and we had to work out how to put this across, so they weren’t literally enacting what they were describing. We graze the moment, represent what was being seen and felt as it happened, but you’re always pulling it back so that you’ve got this objectivity. There are all these different versions of history, and that’s what Marina is trying to say, everyone has a different story of events. And, of course, history is written by the victors.
The actors never miss a beat in the transitions. What was the rehearsal process? Was it a case of finding the rhythm and then letting it flow? As you say, it was about finding it. You didn’t go in with any particular hard and fast plan; you have to sense where you are, it was quite intuitive. The actors got to the stage where they felt the difference between what is experienced by their character, and this is where I have to be to tell the audience what is happening, so you’re narrating more than you’re experiencing. The experience is in the actor, but they’re telling the audience quite descriptively and objectively what their sentiment was. Then they’re contradicted by somebody else who has quite a different picture, and they’re all in the same room, so they are also bearing witness to something they know someone else will tell differently. It is almost an agreement with the actors in the room that that’s what’s going to happen.
That is a lot of layers for an actor to take onboard and then portray. We were all in the same boat, and none of us knew how to do this. It had to be very fluid; people just had to get in there, give it a go, try it, and say when they thought it just didn’t feel right. Everybody was very patient with everybody else and themselves, because it can be frustrating if you’re just not getting it. Once you get it and you feel the current of the dialogue lifting you, that’s quite exhilarating.
There can be a lot of give and take in theatre rehearsals between actors and the director, or there can be very much the director’s vision of how something can be achieved. What way do you work? Every director in the world will tell you that they’re a very collaborative director; there isn’t one who would not say that. I truly believe that that’s the only way to do it, certainly when you’ve got something as delicate as this. If you’re starting to hammer the actors with requests and demands and instructions, you really aren’t going to get anywhere. So, what you do is you cast brilliant actors and let them get on with it. This cast was sublime, absolutely amazing. When you’ve got someone like Aislín McGuckin, the main thing to do is to get out of her way and allow her to find her bearings.
Hecuba is a challenging part, and Aislín is phenomenal at holding her emotions, yet they always bubble under the façade. Did you have her in mind when you decided to stage the production? I knew she had those qualities, and Marina was keen on her. We had a meeting with Aislín, and Marina and herself just clicked. At one point, I said that Hecuba is not a nice woman and Marina pointed out that Hecuba is a queen, she’s ruler, and she has a position. It’s quite odd, given the stuff that’s going on now. The notion that the person who holds a state together, particularly given that her husband has just been slain, is a much more empowered individual than the Queen of England. There’s no constitutional monarchy in the Trojan situation, so she is responsible, yet she is crumbling, according to the others. How could she not be, because of what’s happening to her, but she’s holding together this demeanour and this image of Troy, which is incredibly important. Aislín has that imperious quality, but she’s also, as you can see, hugely complex and subtle and has so many layers of emotional delivery and emotional content. She was the absolutely ideal person. The other person I thought would be spot on was Brian Doherty, who plays Agamemnon. I just knew he had that quality and range.
He is terrifying, and yet he shows moments of great feeling. Yeah, he has such incredible layers of sophistication for this supposed barbarian. Marina’s writing of the character is superb. Brian got all that sensitivity with the façade and wasn’t afraid to be terrifying, to be that ruthless soldier.
We don’t see Agamemnon’s infamous mask, but it takes on a different meaning through its description. I’ve seen the real mask in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, and it is beautiful, but the play turns it into this dreadful thing. Yeah, absolutely. Agamemnon is forced into this position. It’s a political act, which he has no taste for, and you can see that in him. It’s a commentary on what people are forced to deal with in a war situation.
The timing of the screening seems more relevant with war so close to us in Europe. Do you get that sense of timeliness? When we did the initial production, the thing that was in my head was Syria, and Syria is still going on. Those people are being forced out of their countries, and some of them are crossing through the territory of Troy and coming to Europe. Now war is on European soil, and it is getting closer and closer. That was one of the ideas behind the original production: it would look as if this could have happened in Dublin in this theatre, which had been wrecked and abandoned. People were being corralled into the space and then shipped out as slaves. I was fascinated to see in the early days of the Ukraine conflict, there was a theatre that had been turned over to hide refugees. People were sleeping in sleeping bags on the stage. That was precisely the image we were after; now, it is a sad reality.
What was the process of filming? Did you have to block it differently? When we started talking to Colm Hogan, our director of photography, he was looking at all sorts of different locations, and we just knew that in the middle of COVID this wasn’t going to be possible. We had to do it in a particular location and keep everybody together for as many days as possible, so we went back to the theatre where we had done the show. We said if you wanted to make a film of Hecuba, you wouldn’t start here, but this isn’t a film; it is a hybrid. We staged it exactly the same; it just didn’t have the audience. We blocked it pretty much as we had the original show, and Colm came in and walked around so that he could see through the action and around the action. I was really encouraging him to get in as close as possible because, to me, the advantage of the film over the stage show is that the camera can be right in front of them and within the scene, which he did. It wasn’t a Steadicam, it was a handheld camera, and he was right in the middle of the action, wandering around them. It was really about trying to get that intense intimacy. Tony Cranston brought it all together. Colm and Tony are the real geniuses behind this because I don’t know this world. I am a complete novice, and they led me through the process. But in fairness to me, I had set up the performances and worked with the actors, so they had something that was honed and rehearsed over many weeks. Those actors knew that situation very well, so they could do take after take. I was astonished at how Aislín wept in one scene and nailed it every time. We did quite a few takes; the emotional content was spot on each time because she knew her territory so well. She also knew how to gauge her performance and hold that sense of it. The actors are much more experienced in filmmaking than I am. They were also excited about doing it and welcomed this process because they felt secure in the show. They weren’t worried that anything would be distorted or taken out of context. What we have, I think, is truthful to the original show but does have this added intimacy, this close contact.
Will you film future Rough Magic productions? We are going to film as many of our productions as we can. Very few of them will be able to do it the same way as Hecuba because that was the Arts Council allowing us to use funding that would have gone to live theatre that wasn’t going to be spent during COVID and putting that towards this film. Areaman, the production company, did a fantastic job supporting the film and bringing it all together. It was a lucky strike; we need to get another kind of funding to do it at the level to which Hecuba is done.
What would you like audiences to take from seeing it in this different form? I would like them to think that it could be us. Let’s not kid ourselves; these catastrophes are coming closer and closer to our shores every day. We have to start thinking of people in these extremities because that can be us. We should be thinking of them anyway, but even out of self-interest, we need to start guarding against the things that cause these situations. We sleepwalked into Ukraine as a western society. We just didn’t think that could happen anymore. And it did. We just had such a visceral reminder that this has been going on for centuries and millennia. So, isn’t it time we got a bit of foresight? That is what I would like people to take. After COVID everyone’s saying people need to be cheered up. They don’t want to think of unpleasant things, but I think there’s still a role for a great work of art to just say be alert. This is a universal danger and timeless danger. Be on your guard. It’s also incredibly life enhancing because it looks at the humanity of the people that doesn’t get destroyed. It survives the apocalypse. Through centuries, genocide has been perpetrated on so many peoples and isn’t it time we found a way to stop that? But you do see this extraordinary love and celebration of love that still remains even though you see the absolute devastation and the ripple effect on the whole family and society. These horrors exist, and yet there’s a huge grace and dignity of the people who are suffering, and that’s what people might think when they watch this. I don’t know. I hope they enjoy watching the actor, that’s what it’s all about for me.
Interview by Cara O’Doherty
Hecuba will screen in cinemas across Ireland for an event-cinema release on Thursday 15 September.