Direct from its premiere at the Albery Theatre in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) production of Hecuba opened in the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on May 21, with a second US engagement in the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), June 18-26. The production features a new version of Euripides' text adapted by British writer Tony Harrison. The sets and costumes are by Es Devlin, with lighting by Adam Silverman. Vanessa Redgrave stars in the leading role, her first appearance with the RSC since 1962.
One of the most tragic of the Greek plays, the story is that of Hecuba, who was once queen of Troy but was taken a prisoner in the Trojan wars. Her husband and children have been murdered, and she sets out on a path of tragic retribution. “In London, the scenic concept was an ambiguous space, reminiscent of a Greek theatre,” says Silverman. “There was a large curved wall that sat on the downstage edge of the stage then moved on a turntable to become the upstage wall.” Made of layered plywood and cardboard, the wall was painted in earth tones and grays, creating a look of sand and the desert.
To light this environment, Silverman took the audience on “a journey through the story of Hecuba,” culminating with the blinding of Polymnestor, who murdered Hecuba's youngest son. “That was the pinnacle of the piece and a very moody, stylized moment,” Silverman explains. He used PAR cans from a low diagonal angle and VARI*LITE VL3000Qs™ as backlight. The scenic concepts were rethought for the US tour, with the designers taking a new approach. At both the Kennedy Center and at BAM, the stage is fully open, with no masking and revealing everything from heating ducts to hemp lines.
“The set is more contemporary, with rows of distressed green army tents on tiers, stepping up as if in a Greek amphitheater,” says Silverman. “It is much more like high noon, as if in bright sunlight, when Polymnestor is murdered.” This change in concept is in keeping with historical Greek dramas, all performed during the day with natural light, yet the production has a contemporary patina, although it is still set in the period in which it was written (425 BC). As Silverman notes, “The text has been adapted with a modern resonance, in terms of language, as well as subtle references to Iraq and current events.”
Silverman used a large number of PARs for the US production as well — a mix of ETC Source Four® PARs for backlight and Altman PAR64s for sidelight — to create the feeling of a big sky and a “source-less sense of lighting,” he adds. In addition, 1200W Ianiro cyc floods create string washes from the front and above. The automated part of the US rig includes four VARI*LITE VL3000Qs and six VL1000s™ with shutters (increased from four in the UK). The automated fixtures give Silverman the flexibility to define particular spaces on the stage. “I can isolate specific areas for the actors, compared to broad washes for the tents,” he notes. The color palette ranges from basically no color at all to Lee 202 to amplify the concept of natural daylight.
“The chorus is lit as a unit, and they enter from the tented area,” says Silverman, who notes that the choral parts are sung to the accompaniment of live musicians (percussion and cello), visible in side boxes in London, as well as at BAM (although not at the Kennedy Center). Silverman adds just enough light for them to see what they are doing yet not be disruptive to the action on stage.
Touring with the production is a Strand Lighting 520i console and programmer Alex Fox. “She helped with the transfer from the UK to the US,” explains Silverman. Also instrumental in the transfer is Steve Daly, who works on a contract basis as chief electrician for touring at the RSC. When working on a show that will tour, Daly sees the original version in the RSC in Stratford or in London, depending on where it premieres, then meets with the lighting designer, in this case Silverman.
“I look though the house equipment at the theatres we will be going to and decide what we need to rent in addition. In this case, we rented everything through PRG in the UK, and they served as a link to PRG in the US,” says Daly. The exception is the Strand console, which comes from the stock at the RSC. “We find it is better to bring our own console. The show is in the desk,” he adds.
Daly used Lightwright software for the first time in handling the paperwork for the transfer of Hecuba. “It is not used too much in the UK, but I found it useful as everyone knows it in the States,” he points out. And for a transfer like this one, Daly finds that the biggest challenge is not always in the lighting itself but in the communication from theatre to theatre. “We all speak the same language,” he says. “But the terminology can be different.”