Sophocles' Trachiniae, like Euripides' Medea (with which it is more or less contemporary), takes its narrative impulse from a wife's rage at her husband supplanting her with a younger woman, and involves death by means of a poisoned garment. But where Medea is driven to murder by a hunger for revenge, Heracles' wife Deianira in the Trachiniae administers a love philtre which goes treacherously wrong.
The Greek playwrights were pushing their cultural envelope in daring to be less than wholehearted cheerleaders for the civic virtues and the wisdom of the gods, whereas Martin Crimp's adaptation Cruel And Tender is set in a modern world where it's a matter of grim fact that all moral edifices are built on sand, and often built out of fog. Characters speak in the kind of political and military cant that has become all too familiar of late. There are references to making war on terror, but the terms "terrorise" and "terrorist" are used only when describing the conduct of children towards their parents.
Deianira and Heracles become Amelia and "The General". Amelia is a strange combination of jaded cynicism – Kerry Fox delivers almost every line of the opening scene with a self-conscious, self-deprecating slap on its backside – and continuing innocence. She refuses to believe, first, that the girl Laela has been sent to their home from the war zone as the object of the General's passion, and then that the young boy with Laela is not her brother but her son by the General. She feels everything to an extreme degree: relief, insecurity, rage, fear, whatever. Amelia is mercurial to the point of instability. Joe Dixon's General, in contrast, is more consistent in temperament, but seldom entirely lucid. This is partly the result of the poison which is killing him, partly of the psychological dissociation which has enabled him to become so successful as a war commander.
The two could be in different plays. In some ways they are: they never share the stage, the General only arriving after Amelia has killed herself offstage. Crimp carries this disjunction over from Sophocles' original, but also unites the two in a milieu in which love, passion, duty, everything that drives either of them is reduced to a howl in the void. Luc Bondy's first English-language production (which will later play in Vienna, the Ruhrfestspiele, Chichester and Paris) matches Crimp's writing: sharp-edged, clean but far from antiseptic, elegantly circling a great moral and social hole.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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