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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp London Review
Cruel and Tender
by Charlotte Loveridge
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.
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. Click image to buy.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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