The big issues played out in ancient drama at Delphi

DELPHI – The same rare amalgam of fragility and strength, certainty and hesitancy that Vanessa Redgrave displayed at her press conference on the eve of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s single performance of «Hecuba» at Delphi stood her in good stead in her portrayal of the tragic queen. Her stage presence – the wild-eyed former queen, bereft of home and family, fated to encounter – and enact – yet worse horrors, is commanding in its pathos. The role itself – at least the side of Hecuba that seeks justice – could have been written for the real-life Redgrave, with her lifetime commitment to social justice. «I am for law,» she told the press in Delphi on Friday. «Civil law and human rights are the basis we have for democracy and civilization to survive. One of the horrors of modern times is that international laws are being broken by the governments which have signed these conventions.» That direct link to the woes of the modern world is highlighted in the production: Army tents clearly labeled UK and US form a backdrop; the Greek forces are referred to as the coalition; Hecuba and the chorus of Trojan women are generically garbed as refugees from somewhere in the East. Not that Euripides’ text needs any assistance to make his story timeless. War and its hideous aftermath, the plight of women taken into captivity, the quest for justice and the cruelty of the victim-turned-avenger are no strangers to a modern audience – albeit at the safe remove of the daily news. As Redgrave said: «The whole text resonates with reflections for our life, our choices, our world. Hecuba lives in me; in women all over the world. There are women everywhere whose houses have been gutted, whose sons and brothers have been killed.» Tony Harrison’s translation – vigorous, colloquial, unvarnished – makes the impact even more direct. Despite her grief, Hecuba retains her reason. She is a thinking woman who deploys the vaunted rationality of the Greeks against them in her attempts, first to sway Odysseus in order to save her daughter Polyxena, and later Agamemnon, to allow her to take revenge on Polymestor. This emphasis on rational debate and the unexpected shafts of humor in the penultimate stages of the drama work together to defuse the dramatic tension. Hecuba’s demand for extreme revenge almost seems justified and even the ghastly sight of her, hands bloodied, dragging a cart bearing the slain sons of Polymestor, is not the lasting image. She and the chorus of women, heading for hopeless servitude, linger on in the mind’s eye. The chorus – sung but not danced – was compelling. Not everyone who saw the performance agreed with the approach, but all of them went away talking about it. To quote Redgrave again: «Theater is a time to listen and ask ourselves questions and to re-examine one’s life.» And these are big issues – the clash of free will and necessity, the conflicting claims of the law and justice and the limits of revenge. Those lucky enough to see Redgrave and the brilliant RSC cast inaugurate the newly built Delphi theater with a work of such stature and universal resonance responded with a standing ovation. The year of Pericles Pericles and democracy are the focal points of an international symposium running to tomorrow at the European Cultural Center of Delphi (ECCD). On Saturday morning, academics from diverse disciplines and standpoints zeroed in on the multi-faceted Periclean legacy and its critics. Ramsay MacMullen demonstrated the persistence of democratic decision-making processes in the Athenian democracy’s final phase. Paul Cartledge looked at the dark side of Pericles’s reputation in his own time, denounced by some as «Olympian Zeus.» Vassilis Karasmanis referred to Plato’s criticisms of democracy, while Peter Derow showed how the meaning of democracy changed under Roman conquest from a form of government to denoting freedom from monarchical rule. James Diggle looked at the Pericles’s funeral oration as spin, with its praise of Athens a calculated effort to make it seem worth sacrificing more soldiers for. The afternoon session, devoted to «The Athenian Republic, Culture and the Arts,» included speakers such as Greek MP Stelios Papathemelis, who entertained his audience with contemporary reflections of the issues facing ancient Athens. Sunday’s speakers – academics, poets, politicians, NGO officials, an actor and a director – tackled «Democracy and Ancient Greek Drama, From Classic Times to the Modern Era» and «Women, Democracy and Equality.» The conference continues tomorrow, ranging widely and looking deeply into the manifold afterlife of Pericles and ancient Athens.  

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