I don’t really want to write reviews of plays here just for the sake of reviewing particular productions — there are professional critics who get paid to churn such pieces out quickly enough to affect readers interested in shows that will be gone within days. But the Necessary Angel production of Andromache, a loose adaptation of Racine’s tragedy by Evie Christie staged as part of Toronto’s Luminato festival and directed by Graham McLaren, was interesting enough and provides enough of an opportunity to hold forth on broader issues that I’m sitting down now to write this post an hour after seeing the show, and days before it finishes its run.
That McLaren has little time for Racine’s disembodied neoclassicism is obvious from the moment one enters the theatre, a dark, foggy space patrolled by menacing soldiers in fatigues (who double as ushers, commanding the audience to turn off pagers and fucking cell-phones). There’s a filthy toilet on stage and a couple of beat-up TV sets on which other soldiers play ego shooters. Not much in this space allows for the safe distance of spectatorship we might be accustomed to: it’s evident that no fancy lighting will be used, there’s no physical distance (the play’s staged in the round, with seats no more than three rows deep), and the very soundtrack threatens to invade the audience’s private space with its impressively booming bass, making the machinery of war, or at least its soundscape, literally tangible.
And the text, once the play proper gets under way, reveals itself as equally thoroughly modernized, full of fucking, screwing, and the language of contemporary warfare. Mostly, this is all for the better, though sometimes the very clunkiness of our current discourse rather gets in the way — “humanitarian intervention” was not a phrase ever meant to be spoken on a stage. On the other hand, some rather brilliant ironic touches redeem the script; I didn’t check, but I suspect Racine’s Orestes doesn’t react to Hermione’s suicide by thanking “fate and the Gods: I admire your attention to detail.” (I suppose spoiler alerts are in order, but the play has been around for almost 350 years….) Still, textually this remains a challenging play. Much as Christie has brought the language up to date and even rendered some of the emotions more contemporary, structurally, it’s still a text that’s not designed for frequent interaction — and the modernized discourse makes that more rather than less noticeable. When characters express themselves in more or less naturalistic and familiar ways, we (by which I mean, I) expect other characters to respond in similarly naturalistic ways: by interrupting, say, or by entering the conversation somehow. Here, as Racine would have wanted,characters get to stand and listen — pacing angrily, perhaps, staring, grinding their teeth, but without anything to say until the other’s speech is finally over.
This doesn’t become a problem at every turn. The scene that most benefitted from having one of its characters locked in silence is the long exchange — call it a duel — between Hermione and Pyrrhus in Act 4 (I think). Hermione circles Pyrrhus, taunts him, mocks, snaps, both verbally and physically, slaps him, begs, coaxes, pleads, on and on, while he stands silently, the tension building and building. Nowhere else does the production exploit the structural challenge of Racine’s text as effectively as here, but for these ten edge-of-my-seat minutes or so, McLaren and especially the remarkable Christine Horne as Hermione more than rise to the challenge: they turn what in the original is a distancing device, a means of keeping the characters safely apart, into a pressure cooker. The lid does eventually blow off in a most Racine-unlike fashion, but the buildup to that moment worked, for me, as a breathtaking transformation of a very old text into a very modern moment, startlingly physical, relentlessly focused.
More often, however, the text gets in the way a little. It forestalls action rather than driving it. Physically, of course, this is a very impressive production. Much of the movement is admirably precise and pointed, deeply choreographed but propelled by a stunningly raw sense of embodiment (the space helps). The shuffle of Andromache’s shackled feet, the anguished twists of her cable-tied wrists, her shocking physical vulnerability when Pyrrhus drags her behind him on the floor and shoves her head into that looming toilet; Hermione nervily roaming about on stage, clinging to Orestes only to run from him over and again, coming to kneel squarely on Pyrrhus’ chest after their climactic fight, finally, almost naked, beer-soaked, crying, taking her rage out on virtual cannon fodder while playing a video game and blasting radio-unfriendly Cee Lo Green in a very long, difficult to watch, but utterly tantalizing sequence. But that last moment seemed kind of symptomatic to me: it was great theatre, but it was mute — or at least textless.
In general, the women fare much better with their lines than the men, I’m sorry to say. Arsinée Khanjian plays an effective Andromache, though I had forgotten (despite seeing another production of the play just over a year ago at Theatre Erindale) how little stage time Racine grants her — and this version of the text cuts the role even further, stripping Andromache of her final triumphant scene. She’s by turns vulnerable, angry, desperate, and resigned, struggling to maintain some kind of dignity even as she is forced to reach into a toilet bowl to retrieve the key to her son’s cell. She’s also first and foremost a mother here, not a widow, as my colleague Nancy Copeland pointed out to me. In Racine’s play, Pyrrhus wants to take Hector’s place as Andromache’s husband; in the Necessary Angel version, he seems at least as jealous of her love for her son Astyanax.
Horne’s Hermione, really the play’s central character, is a brilliant achievement. Shrinking in pain, incandescent with rage, cold in her irony, switching from cutting sarcasm and snide distance to an all-consuming greed for love; loathsome in her racist dismissal of the Trojans, moving in her despair at Pyrrhus’s betrayal, abjectly manipulative in her toying with Orestes, the character emerges as complex, frustrating, perplexing, and utterly convincing, psychologically and physically totally consistent in her fractured, self-destructive state.
The same, I’m afraid, can’t be said of the men. Maybe it’s the text; maybe it’s the staging with its emphasis on militarism and masculine power; but all the male leads operate with a far more limited emotional and physical range than the women. Vulnerability in particular is in short supply, a problem in particular for Orestes (Steven McCarthy) — there is so much testosterone in the air whenever the stage is dominated by the male characters that a healthy dose of wimp would be more than welcome. In Pyrrhus’ case, the challenge seems textual in nature: in silence, Christopher Morris displays an impressive range of physical expressions, moving through degrees of restraint to excessive violence, but verbally, he tends to switch from a soldier’s growl to a slightly hysterical shout without too many gradations in between. The intensity of total silence never quite translates into the intensity of quiet speech, and that turns his Pyrrhus into something of a two-dimensional figure, an illustration of “ferociousness.” Both Orestes and Pyrrhus are multiply jilted lovers — they’re desperate, hurt, and at times exasperated men — but here, there is little sense that men can respond to or express such emotions and experiences in a less than full-throated register. I hope that’s not entirely true. It may of course be McLaren’s point, in which case, well, fair enough.
Interestingly, for all its in-yer-face physicality, the production does stay true to Racine’s neoclassical restraint in one way: neither Pyrrhus’ death, described in gory detail, not Hermione’s suicide, reported a little less graphically, are staged. I wasn’t sure whether I should consider that a missed opportunity or not, and what it would have meant to make those deaths visible. On the one hand, our media culture has long turned violence into a visual experience, pace Baudrillard (or not) — report no longer has the same power to move or shock us as it did in the seventeenth century. Are we meant to be shocked by those narratives? Are they supposed to affect us? And if so, is keeping them offstage still the right decision?
Finally, to wrap this rambling mess up in the way I promised at the beginning, what can be said about this production as an example of how contemporary theatre deals — or should deal — with the “classics?” The previous paragraph partly gets me to one challenge: is departing from the original the better (the more respectful, the more true-to-the-play?) choice if it means achieving an effect the original would (or at least could) have achieved by different means? How far can we move away from the old play in a new setting before we lose the thing that is the play — and why should that matter? Necessary Angel’s Andromache did make me wonder about one aspect of this problematic: the text itself. As I have described in far too much detail, this was a performance remarkable principally for its tangibility. The physical presence of the actors, the insistence with which their bodies claimed their places right in front of us (you could smell the sweat in the room), the continuous aural assault the soundtrack delivered — all of that made for an exhilarating theatrical experience. But it didn’t quite come together with the text as consistently and thoroughly as I would have wished. It was partly Christie’s script, with its occasional lapses and imperfections; it was partly the phrasing, which produced a number of odd and distracting pauses; but it was, more generally and more problematically, my sense that many of these characters, and possibly the actors behind them, were more comfortably at home in their movements than in their words. Language tends to be complex, shifty, elusive — and in Hermione’s case, the slipperiness of her lines corresponded to the crazed multiplicity of her embodied personae. But for most of the other characters, the lines wasn’t where the action was. And that is a bit of a problem for a staging of an old play.
I wrote about the same thing in my earlier reflections on Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal — this mismatch between performance and language. And it’s clearly a core issue for modern productions of “the classics.” My point, however, is not that McLaren & Co. lacked respect for Racine (or Christie), that they somehow did violence to a text they should have served more faithfully, that they were inadequate vessels for the authorial word. Not at all. But it still seemed to me that for all its excitingness and fervour, this production couldn’t quite fill the gap between the presence of the bodies and sounds and the representational work the words were supposed to do. Which is to say, that ultimately, in a strange way, Andromache almost went missing in all the action. (And not to say you shouldn’t see it: it’s a great and obviously thought-provoking show. Catch it if you can.)
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