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translation commissioned by BBC Radio 3

                              ΗΚΩ ΝΕΚΡΩΝ ΚΕΥΘΜΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΣΚΟΤΟΥ ΠΥΛΑΣ

Hecuba’s murdered son begins the play. ‘I come before you, the hidden dwelling of the dead and the gates of darkness left behind me…’

Hecuba, once queen of the Troy that is now fallen, has lost nearly all her children in the war - or to one atrocity or other. Her hero-son Hector has been slaughtered and his body abused. Her youngest son, whom she had sent abroad to be safe, has been murdered by his guardian there. Now the victorious Greeks have come to take her youngest daughter to offer her in human sacrifice, to appease the bloodthirsty ghost of their dead champion, so that their fleet can leave.

Ten years on from my first attempt at translation of a Greek tragedy (Aeschylus: The Persians) I had come to recognise that the conventional mode of translation was doing these plays no service at all - in performance, that is. There is always need for new ‘straight’ translations, with commentaries and footnotes, for new generations to read and study. But in performance there can be no footnotes. My Hecuba was an endeavour to mediate the ancient text in a more thorough, radical way. Its world is anthropologically so strange to us as to be culturally unrecognisable - yet war, atrocity and slavery bloody and blacken our world too. Some way must be found, to penetrate this ancient world-view, with its alien ideas and extinct gods, and bring the audience into it - so that it is our world, immediate and primary; no cultural gap. With Hecuba I attempted to develop such a way. I found myself, in working the speeches and dialogue and lyric verse, breaking open many words and ideas, spelling out many meanings; thus the text that resulted was very long - it took three hours to play. In future experiments in this mode of translation I would seek more and more to distil. 

John Tydeman’s production had monstrous and forbidding radio presence. Beatrix Lehmann, in blackest demonic voice as the raging sorrow-maddened mother of all war-bereaved mothers, won a Sony Gold for Best Radio Performance. She was well matched, in her blood-letting finale, by Tom Watson’s murderous Scots villain, craven and crazed. With Malcolm Clarke of Radiophonic Workshop, I was able to shape abstract sound into a nightmare score.



translation commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company


                         ΕΠΕΙΔ’ ΕΡΗΜΟΝ ΧΩΡΟΝ ΕΙΣΕΒΑΛΛΟΜΕΝ
                         ΑΚΤΗ ΤΙΣ ΕΣΤΙ

The ‘Messenger’ sets the scene for Hippolytus’ apocalyptic death. Riding his chariot into exile, he and his entourage strike into uninhabited country. A certain headland comes into view…

Phaedra, the young foreign wife of a conquering king, has become sexually obsessed with his beautiful son by an earlier marriage. But the son, Hippolytus, is pathologically committed to a life of sublimation. She tries to seduce him:  revolted, he rejects her;  in shame and terror, she hangs herself. But she has left a letter for her husband, accusing the son of an attempt to rape her. The king condemns his son, and on his way into exile the boy is apocalyptically killed.

This story has come into European culture via Seneca and Racine, both of whom switch the narrative focus to Phaedra. Euripides’ focus is on a passionate young man who yet cannot integrate the physicality of sex into his idealized self-picture. Euripides’ telling of the story gives a modern audience every psychological and biographical clue as to where this young man’s pathology is coming from;  likewise embedded in the text, is every clue to Phaedra too.  A startling play, of fearsome formal integrity and moral ruthlessness.  And a beautiful work of art.


Natasha Parry as Phaedra.  RSC The Other Place  1978


At Oxford I had offered this play as a ‘special study’, with the academic world’s then leading authority on the text. Now, 20 years later, I returned to it as a further experiment in translating Greek tragedy. In Hecuba I had been able only to ‘explode’ the text to illuminate its meaning. Now I felt the need to rein myself in, abiding by the brevity and the letter of the original, mediating its ancient theology and mythology in existential terms. Curiously, two critics described the result in exactly the same words: ‘.. the most speakable version of a Greek tragedy [they had] come across’.

No way am I content with all of it, but it was a significant step forward for me in this matter, and it pays off in performance: as intended, it feels to the actor as though this play has been in English from the start; the words stand in their own original right, and provide the primary energy the actor needs. (Orthodox translations, however good, just don’t do that.) It’s a high-risk method, and not practicable with every Greek play alike; but it is an authentic endeavour of translation. Many so-called ‘translations’ offered in the theatre and on radio now are done at second hand, a poeticizing of the scholarship of someone else, a risky process - and is it honest? A ‘version’ or ‘re-creation’ is another matter: possessed by a modern author in some resonant modern way, it can be a valuable contemporary work. Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is a strong example. What I endeavoured with Hippolytus was a process of strict translation, but because of the principles governing it, I thought it less misleading to call it a ‘realization’. Some critics sneered at me for that. Though I disliked their tone, I took their point, and published the text as a ‘version’


Published by Heinemann Educational Books, 1980.
ISBN 0 435 23780 2.

Among the RSC cast at Stratford, The Other Place:

Natasha Parry: Phaedra
Michael Pennington: Hippolytus
Patrick Stewart: Theseus

Director: Ron Daniels.

In 1984, John Tydeman directed it for Radio 3, with Siân Phillips as Phaedra, Norman Rodway as Theseus, Sean Barrett as Hippolytus. In contrast with his raging black Hecuba, Tydeman’s Hippolytus was marble-white and sculptured in effect, chaste and rational, enhancing the suppressed presence of the irrational powers at work. The soundscore here was a constant soft breaking of waves of the sea.

The then Controller of Radio 3, Ian McIntyre, required two-and-a-half minutes’ playing time to be cut from the recording, to fit this ancient perfect play into a two-hour slot in the schedules.