Can you feel the love? Arsinee Khanjian as Andromache and Christopher Morris as Pyrrhus in Necessary Angel’s Andromache.
Necessary Angel Theatre Company‘s new production, Andromache, shows humanity at its most desperate: characters torture, manipulate, use, and hurt each other, both mentally and physically, to satisfy their own unfulfilled desires. Their post-war world is dark and unkind, and their inability to find happiness or empathy drives most of them to the brink of madness.
And we’re kind of ashamed of how much we thoroughly enjoyed watching their unraveling.
Since Torontoist previously spoke to cast members Ryan Hollyman and Christine Horne about the darker aspects of the show and the bold style of Scottish director Graham McLaren, we knew in advance that this wasn’t going to be a light or joyful romp. But even we were taken aback from the first moment we entered the arena space of the Theatre Centre, surrounded by smoky air, sounds of a shoot-em-up war video game and barking dogs pounding in our ears, and fully fatigued and armed soldiers demanding we “Turn [our] cell phones off!” We did, sat down, and took in the scene: a sparse and rustic set, a metal bed and TV to our right, a toilet, sink, and second TV to our left, dimly lit by a few table lamps and hanging light bulbs. It fit McLaren’s signature like a gun in its holster: simple, but with a clear rough-around-the-edges style. “Here we go,” we thought.
Arsinee Khanjian as the titular Andromache.
Aside from the staging, one of the production’s biggest strengths is the script by French playwright Jean Racine, as translated by Canadian poet and author Evie Christie. Based on the Greek classic by Euripides, the play takes place smack dab in the middle of the aftershocks of the Trojan war. Andromache’s (Arsinee Khanjian) husband Hector is killed, and she is taken prisoner by the new ruler of Troy, Pyrrhus (Christopher Morris), who then falls in love with her and helps her protect her son from execution, despite her refusals to marry him. Meanwhile, his betrothed, the princess Hermione (Horne), is humiliated by Pyrrhus’ redirected affections, and finds herself torn between remaining in Troy in the hopes Pyrrhus will eventually accept her, or escape with Orestes (Steven McCarthy), sent partly to Troy to kill Andromache’s son, but mostly because he’s madly in love with Hermione and intends to steal her from Pyrrhus.
Still with us? Well, Christie’s script not only makes this extremely clear, but completely relatable, all the while maintaining the richness of a Greek tragedy. And since the translation is tailored for this specific contemporary interpretation, every once in a while the sting of a perfectly-timed F-bomb (as Pyrrhus explains to Hermione, “Love fucks with you, and must be heeded to.”) or a term from modern warfare really hits home. The language, set, costumes, and sound design (a barely noticeable, persistent, low throbbing that at points builds into the sound of a jet overhead) results in one of the most successful modern adaptations we’ve since in recent memory.
The actors use Christie’s words to pummel and stab each other, munitions much deadlier than the weapons at their fingertips. Pyrrhus and Hermione in particular are cruelly aware of the power they hold over their devotees, yet are simultaneously at the mercy of their own infatuations. These characters, expertly and gut-wrenchingly performed by Morris and Horne, are at times mercilessly conspiratorial and manipulative, at others despairingly desperate and conflicted—they even manage to create rare moments of comedy and sympathy. But while the most damage is done through the mind, there is constant suspense at the potential of a physical blowout, a slap here and shove there, but which only comes to a head at a few key points. This is where McLaren grows from his first production with Necessary Angel, Hamlet Project, exercising restraint in physicality, keeping the audience gripped in anticipation for when the tension finally breaks.
We don’t live in a war zone, and we’d never dream of such dastardly exploits, but we certainly all know the pain of an unrequited love and the internal conflict between the heart and the mind. And we’ve certainly blasted angry music and danced around in our underwear, as Hermione does (though not in quite as unhinged and maniacal manner… we hope). In a twisted way, Andromache reminds us of lovesick adolescence and theatrical scenes played out in school hallways and cafeterias. Even then we couldn’t resist the lure of a toe-curling, nail-biting, teeth-grinding scandal. With stakes raised as high as they are in Andromache, we dare you to try to look away.
Photos by Michael Cooper.