Cruel and Tender
Martin Crimp after Sophocles' Trachiniae
Co-production between Wiener Festwochen, Chichester Festival Theatre and the Young Vic
The multi-talented co-producers of Cruel and Tender can probably hardly believe their luck. When they commissioned a new version of Sophocles' Trachiniae from Martin Crimp, they will have hoped that it would work on two levels. The real surprise is that so much of its subject matter could almost be drawn directly from the front pages of the newspapers this week.
The hero, if that is the right term, Heracles or The General, is a man who "roots out terror by pulverising cities". His problem is that the more he fights terror, the more he creates terror and in his efforts to "extract terror like a tooth from its own stinking gums" rather than "cleansing and purifying the world" is accused of genocide. Surely, this would never have happened in Greek times.
In another chilling parallel with events in Iraq, this man who is used to fighting child soldiers is accused of cutting out a boy's heart in front of a crowd. This could all come straight from the front page of the Daily Mirror.
There is more, however, to Cruel and Tender than a re-running of the TV news. Luc Bondy's ultra-modern production, set in an emptyish space designed by Richard Peduzzi, seems to owe a fair amount to another of its progenitors, Peter Brook. It mixes the classical tale of Heracles and his wife, Deianira, which is relatively faithfully followed, with an absolutely up-to-date drama about love and fidelity in times of war.
Martin Crimp is a wonderful writer whose language is always very spare and direct but who has a knack of writing very quotable English or, in a slightly different parlance, sound-bites. He does his subject proud, acknowledging the original but creating a very powerful, sometimes upsetting play that will appeal to modern audiences who may not even be aware of its Greek origins.
The first two thirds of the play deals with the problems of lonely, volatile Amelia (Kerry Fox with twangs of her native New Zealand accent). She may be living a life of pampered luxury but the absence of her husband The General in an African war-zone is causing her stress. To alleviate this, she sends her lazy, video games-playing son James, played by Toby Fisher, to find his father.
When word arrives of The General's victories, Amelia is momentarily delighted but this soon changes as Michael Gould's oily government minister, Jonathan, an old family friend, brings home some spoils of war, two silent African children. It transpires that not only is Georgina Ackerman's Laela her husband's lover but The General's greatest triumph, the sacking of a city and the murder of all of its inhabitants was caused not by zeal for his job but by love for Laela.
The play then moves into Greek tragic mode as Amelia, wittingly or otherwise, sends a pillow poisoned with a drug called Humane to her Heracles, then bloodily kills herself. As with the original, there is no stage overlap between Kerry Fox's Amelia and her husband, played by Joe Dixon. When he finally appears, the general is destroyed, both mentally and physically, dressed in little more than a catheter and waste bag.
It is very sad to see the man who has completed seven great labours now not only destroyed but rather than the hero that the US TV series presents, no more than a squalid war criminal who is ultimately shackled and condemned by a hypocritical government.
Bondy's direction is characterised by great attention to detail and in particular this is exemplified by an extremely funny supporting performance from Jessica Claire as beautician Nicola who is always far more interested in primping herself than her mistress.
The cast is well drilled but the main plaudits must go to excellent performances from Kerry Fox, looking like a Cindy Sherman film star, and Joe Dixon as the broken, maddened but still noble General.
The five co-producers from around Europe are all to be congratulated on a brave venture and in particular, it will be interesting to see how this goes down in Chichester, which in the past has tended to prefer more staid productions.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version
"Cruel and Tender" runs until 10th July but tours during the run
Reviewer: Philip Fisher