Marsha Mason and Niall McGinty in Hecuba
(Photo © Peter Bosy)
Marsha Mason and Niall McGinty in Hecuba
(Photo © Peter Bosy)
It should be no surprise, given current political circumstances, that theaters around the world have been busily producing Hecuba, Euripides' classic tragedy set in the aftermath of the long and bloody 10-year war that the Greeks waged against the Trojans. "It is the ultimate play about war," says Patrick Mason, director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's current production of Hecuba, which has been adapted by playwright Frank McGuinness and stars four-time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason (no relation) in the title role. "It's an astonishing piece because it comes to us from over 2,000 years ago, but it tells us what I think we are trying to deny at the moment -- what war does to human beings."

In the play, Hecuba, widow of the defeated Trojan king Priam, is now a slave of the conquering Greek king Agamemnon. She has experienced the horror of seeing her husband and sons killed in battle. She has also endured the indignities of captivity, but her sorrows are not ended: During the course of the play, Hecuba loses her surviving daughter, Polyxena, who is selected as a blood sacrifice to appease the vengeance of the fallen hero Achilles; and she discovers that Polydorus, the son whom she sent away to escape the battle, has been treacherously murdered by his protector. Says the director, "We tend, as the Greeks did, to celebrate war as a sort of all-male affair. Euripides turns it on its head and asks us to look at the women, who are mostly the victims of war. That heighens the whole thing."

As Mason points out, the circumstances that prompted Euripides to write the play nearly 2,500 years ago, when Athens was in the very early stages of the Peloponnesian War, have an eerie resonance in the 21st century. "It was an illegal war started by Athens against Sparta, which Euripides was violently opposed to," he notes. "The Athenians were gung ho about it -- regime change and everything. Of course, it finally destroyed Athens, but that was much later. Euripides was a man who found himself in this sort of imperial democracy, with its much vaunted rule of law, that deliberately started an illegal war for the usual reasons of economy, trade, and dominion."

The director, who won a 1992 Tony Award for his production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, says he was hooked on doing McGuinness's version of Hecuba after seeing a 2004 production at London's Donmar Warehouse that starred Clare Higgins. He and McGuiness have a working relationship that spans several decades, and Mason immediately asked his old friend if he could direct the play somewhere. Around that same time, Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, invited Mason to make his directorial debut in the Windy City. So he sent her the McGuinness script, saying, "This is the one thing that I really want to do because it has an urgency about it, given the world we are living in." Once Gaines agreed to do the play, both she and Mason had the dea of casting Marsha Mason in the title role. Says the director, "She is a strong, passionate actress with extraordinary energy to project emotion from the heart. And she is also kind of everyone's mother, everyone's grandmother; she is 'earthed' in that way.

"It's hard to believe that any one human being can go through the trials of Hecuba, yet you can believe it because we all know the history of the 20th century," Mason says of the role. What is no less terrifying, he feels, is Hecuba's eventual response to her colossal suffering: "This is the brilliance of the story. The woman turns around and says, 'I am not interested in your sympathy anymore, what I want is justice.' She then proceeds to take her justice, her revenge, in any way she can. Suddenly, you are completely compromised in your emotional response to this person -- and that is the point. Euripides doesn't make it easy, and isn't this the problem we are wrestling with at the moment? What exactly is justice and what exactly is revenge?"

In addition to the contemporary relevance of the story, the director says that McGuinness's adaptation helps to make the ancient Greek text feel immediate. "This version is so audience-friendly," he remarks. "It's high octane stuff, and it goes like a rocket. The language is incredibly spare, extraordinarily accessible. Frank uses what is basically Irish English, but with a colloquial strength. He said that he wanted each line to be like a stone thrown against the wall, and that's exactly the effect of it. It's very compressed, very tense, but it absolutely hits the target each time. The key to all of it is the incredible strength of pure, unadulterated narrative. The story is like granite; it lodges in you mind and you cannot shift it. What's extraordinary is that these terrible things happen, and yet there is such an energy in the telling of them that you don't find yourself depressed. Actually, you find yourself with a new sense of the complexities of life and human nature."