I feel very fortunate to have seen the story of the Women of Trachis portrayed twice within a week. I don’t mean two performances of the same production, but two different works in wildly different media. The comparisons are unavoidable.
Last Thursday night I was present at the opening of Handel’s oratorio Hercules at Koerner Hall, a semi-staged production by Tafelmusik invoking figures from classical Greek mythology (and reviewed that night). The title notwithstanding, this is really a virtuoso vehicle for the women in his life sung in the baroque style (arias and recitatives, singing with orchestra), Hercules being a cameo compared to the two women vying for the leading role in his love-life.
This afternoon I saw a matinée of Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, a play after Sophocles’ Trachiniae. Directed by Atom Egoyan for Canadian Stage, Crimp’s play is also something of a star vehicle, but set in the modern day:
- Deïanira (or “Dejanira”) from the original has become “Amelia”, Egoyan’s real-life leading lady, Arsinée Khanjian
- Hercules has become “The General”, played by Daniel Kash
- Their son Hyllus is now “James”, played by Jeff Lillico
- Deïanira’s rival Iöle is now the African Princess “Laela”, played by Abena Malika.
With the earlier work still clearly in mind, it was unavoidable to make the comparisons, particularly considering the ways in which the new play updates the action.
We’ve all seen plays presented with anachronistic design elements, sometimes adding wonderful layers to the play, but often merely leaving us scratching our heads. But interpretation is not to be confused with the bigger step taken by Crimp. By declaring it is a play “after Sophocles’ Trachiniae” he sets himself free to make it his own, while declaring that his text is not to be mistaken for Greek tragedy.
There’s an overused word I kept thinking of watching Cruel and Tender, namely deconstruction. Crimp revisits the familiar territory of the older play, yet in modernizing takes everything apart, problematizing what was once simple and mythic. But then again he is simply taking from history what has obviously changed. I don’t believe I could possibly capture all of the categories (still haunted by the older work I saw last week), and don’t want to give too much away for fear of stealing some of Crimp’s thunder. The General for example, does not have the freedom of the ancient hero who brings a maiden home after conquering her people. Our modern General may emulate the savagery of his ancient prototype but must answer for his atrocities, unacceptable conduct for a modern hero, facing a new world with complex rules of engagement. Fame is distorted by the lens of the media and interpreted by government bureaucrats, pragmatic contexts without compassion for the man.
The updates to the roles of the women are big payoffs for Crimp and the audience for Cruel and Tender. The emotional notes struck in the Sophocles tend to be larger than life, so extreme and abstract as to seem symbolic rather than real; but then again the ancient text was presented with masks in a huge theatre, not for a society accustomed to close-ups and emotional truth. Egoyan –perhaps with his operatic background—never mistakes Crimp’s textures for realism, encouraging a kind of post-modern virtuosity. Each of the major parts get their moment in the figurative spotlight.
Khanjian’s Amelia carries the show just as one would expect of a Deïanira. Although this world is defined by the General, his role is brief, only appearing near the end; for the first two thirds of the evening everyone lives in the shadow of the absent hero. Khanjian strikes a balance between the requisite glamour for a fitting consort to the larger than life hero, and her passion. But unlike Deïanira, Amelia’s passions are fleshed out, much more than just jealousy. She is a pragmatist determined not to be a victim, sometimes tense, sometimes angry, a wife delivering ironic critiques with a sidelong glance, and a growing sense of misery. This is the first time I’ve seen Khanjian perform in a live theatre setting –where she started before her much more extensive film career began—and I’m pleasantly surprised.
Malika’s Laela accomplished her chief challenge, managing to be a worthy antagonist to Amelia while being completely likeable, an innocent brought to an impossible situation. The one question mark for me was in the production’s decision to let us hear Malika sing; if Crimp really wrote that odd and contrived scene of karaoke –the weakest thing in the production—then it’s simply that Egoyan was trying his best to make the odd writing work. I have no idea what Crimp was aiming for in that scene, even if Malika’s singing is wonderful. But it’s an odd shift of tone for the work that I didn’t really understand.
Daniel Kash doesn’t disappoint when he finally brings the General to us, a man who looks like a Hercules even if –speaking of deconstruction—there’s no reason why a modern general has to look like a Greek God. Yes there is one anecdote of the General’s exploits, a rescue carrying someone on his back; but our General could just as easily be tiny, and the story a bogus fabrication. In this respect our modern play reveals its roots, giving the General a classical heroism. Just as Hercules suffers greatly, so too the General. Kash does his best with the writing, which I find wordy (sorry Mr Crimp). Speaking of heroic, Kash performs manfully considering what he’s expected to say and do. Crimp makes wonderful use of the classical subtext when the General is raving, making delirious references to the Nemean Lion –one of Hercules’ 12 labours—and flings a bit of clothing over his shoulder as if it were the lion-skin. We thereby get the grandeur of the classical overtones that have mostly been suppressed throughout the play, in the middle of the crazed ravings of our modern man.
I was especially pleased with James (the son of the General and Amelia, corresponding to Hyllus), both in the writing and the performance of Jeff Lillico. This is one of several places in the play where the difference between the old and new are especially edgy. When we first meet James he’s almost gormless, a self-absorbed youth who’s under his mother’s sway: at least at first. When sent to search for his father, all that changes. The James who returns after finding his father in Africa becomes the alpha animal, presumably from this encounter but also because of a coming of age experience in his travels. Again, it’s partly the writing, which isn’t subtle; but I love that clarity, at least in the way that Egoyan finds the blunt truth of the family dynamic. The pace throughout is very organic, allowing you to hear and understand, never lagging, but sometimes allowing breathing room for some of the powerful moments.
I hope I haven’t given too much away, but it’s very much worth seeing. I’d like to see it again.
Cruel and Tender runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre until February 18th.