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Cruel and Tender
by Charlotte Loveridge

I have purified the world for you. I have burnt terror out of the world for people like you… The dog with three heads I collected it from hell in front of the cameras.
--- The General
Cruel and Tender
Kerry Fox as Amelia
(Photo: Ruth Waltz)
In a cosmopolitan production, collaborating with Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, the Young Vic presents an updated version of Sophocles' fifth-century BC tragedy, the Trachiniae, now fashioned into a drama of immediate contemporary relevance.

In the original myth, Deianeira, the wife of the greatest hero ever Heracles, awaits her husband's return after a fifteen-month absence. Sending her son Hyllus in search of him, she soon discovers that Heracles is nearby, and has successfully captured the town of Oechalia. However, among a train of women captured by Heracles, is the princess Iole, with whom Heracles has fallen in love. Deineira, upon learning of this, sends her husband a shirt smeared with a love-charm she was once given by the Centaur Nessus. Realizing too late that the charm was in fact deadly poison, Hyllus returns, describing Heracles' torturous agony on wearing the shirt with its flesh-consuming poison and denounces his mother as a murderer. Her suicide is followed by the dying Heracles' entrance, who asks to be burnt alive before the pain returns and instructs his son to marry Iole.

Instead of the universal themes of Greek tragedy, Martin Crimp adapts the play with a patently modern interpretation. The war against terror, political spin and hypocrisy, the dangers of chemical warfare, and megalomaniac figures in authority are all incorporated into his reconfiguration of the ancient tragedy. Crimp's writing has a poetic quality and is full of graphic imagery, often using chemical or biological simile. When, despite her own infidelity, Amelia hears about her husband's adultery, she says "It is like having my face sprayed with acid".

Amelia, with a powerful performance from Kerry Fox, describes her past in a declamatory monologue, reminiscent of formally-performed tragedy. Kept waiting with no news of her husband, her imprisonment and frustration are clear. The various indoor exercise equipment suggests her entrapment. The impersonal set, with its ostentatiously bland colours, is more hotel than home, and adds to the sense that Amelia is acting in a vacuum of sympathy. Although surrounded by retainers, she is deprived of any real interaction with other humans. The chorus (Jessica Claire, Lourdes Faberes and Nicola Redmond) are a beautician, a physiotherapist and a housekeeper. Their petty concerns with the trivialities of their roles isolate Amelia and reproduce the ancient chorus' inability to share in the individual hero's deep, visceral tragedy.

Amelia's son James (Toby Fisher) develops from a sulky teenager towards responsibility via tragedy. The General (Joe Dixon), severely debilitated by poison, appears catheterised and bandaged, has none of Heracles' greatness, but is a barbarous and inhumane war criminal. At one point, he repeatedly mutters "kallinikos" to himself, Heracles' famous epithet meaning "glorious in victory". The jarring incongruity between the legendary hero and this General is obvious. His megalomania has caused massacres through his half-crazed obsession with purifying the world and his lust for the beautiful Laela (Georgina Ackerman).

This is Sophocles with a cutting-edge political agenda and painted toe-nails.

Cruel and Tender
Written by Sophocles
Adapted by Martin Crimp
Directed by Luc Bondy

Starring: Kerry Fox
With: Georgina Ackerman, Jessica Claire, Joe Dixon, Lourdes Faberes, Toby Fisher, Michael Gould, Alesandar Mikic, Nicola Redmond, David Sibley.
Designer: Richard Peduzzi (Set); Rudy Sabounghi (Costumes)
Lighting Designer: Dominque Brugière
Sound: Paul Arditti
Running time: Two hours without an interval
Box Office: 020 7928 6363
Booking to 10th July 2004 but no performances between 17th May and 16th June as the production is touring
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 13th May 2004 Performance at the Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Tube/Rail Station: Waterloo)
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