Cruel and Tender, Young Vic, London

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The Independent Culture

In Britain, we have good cause to know that Luc Bondy is a director of the first rank. His productions have often swept to the rescue of otherwise disappointing Official Festival programmes in Edinburgh. But these have all been visiting enterprises; Bondy has never created a piece of work from scratch on these shores.

In Britain, we have good cause to know that Luc Bondy is a director of the first rank. His productions have often swept to the rescue of otherwise disappointing Official Festival programmes in Edinburgh. But these have all been visiting enterprises; Bondy has never created a piece of work from scratch on these shores.

That regrettable state of affairs is remedied now in high, unsettling style by Cruel and Tender, a production for which the Young Vic and the Chichester Festival Theatre have joined forces with Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen and Peter Brook's Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. The result is a mordantly knowing modernisation of Sophocles's Trachiniaeby English dramatist Martin Crimp. In the Greek original, the homecoming hero is the semi-divine Heracles. The wife who bides fearfully is Deianeira. She graciously gives sanctuary to an advance party of captive women, only to discover that it was an infatuation with one of them that spurred her husband to sack the foreign city. She sets about trying to reclaim him by sending him a shirt that has been dabbed with the blood of the centaur Nessus which Nessus promised would magically divert Heracles's ardour back to her. In fact, as she should have foreseen, this was a trap, designed to clamp the hero in unendurable torment.

In Crimp's canny updating, the wife Amelia (a wonderfully caustic and abandoned Kerry Fox) waits for news of hubby in a moneyed compound (the sleek V-shaped set is by Richard Peduzzi) where she is attended by a trio of female beauticians. The debunking of the myth exposes profound institutional cynicism; the method has affinities with what Shakespeare did to the Trojan War story in Troilus and Cressida. But the approach here manages to be at once lethally level and capable of surges of anguished feeling. Half-naked, his penis in a catheter, his skin hideously blighted by the chemical-weapons equivalent of the hessian shirt, Joe Dixon's wheel-chaired General derangedly insists that he has "burnt terror" out of the world for the people. This Heracles is at the mercy of fickle on-message politicians (including a very funny Michael Gould) who, having benefited from his labours, can, to suit public mood, allow them to be redefined as war crimes.

Similarly, there's a deadpan drollness in the self-deceived politically correct relief with which Fox's superb Amelia greets and hospitably envelops Laela (Georgina Ackerman) and the six-year-old boy, before she realises her husband's intimate connection to them. These characters are African, because it's in the sub-Saharan section of that continent that the general has been active. But the play and production don't allow you to sit in detached judgement on her case. There's a sequence that viscerally involves you to a truly tension-inducing degree when, realising what she has done, half-drunk and with a crushed wineglass in her hand, Amelia staggers bleeding round the compound to the counterpoint of a piercingly pure German oratorio. Already, around her, the furniture is being covered in the polythene sheeting and the room turned into the "crime scene" it will become after she is dead. Highly recommended.

Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7928 6363) 17 June to 10 July; Festival Theatre, Chichester (01243 781312) 4 August to 4 September

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