It’s probably true that one’s opinion of a performance may differ depending on whether that person has paid to see the show or is seeing it for free. I fall into the latter category, but I will try to be as objective as I can.
Cruel and Tender, a play by British playwright Martin Crimp and directed by celebrated filmmaker Atom Egoyan, is a contemporary modernization of a Greek tragedy by Sophocles entitled The Trachiniae. The original play tells the story of Heracles and his fall from heroism and greatness while away from his wife in battle. This modernization, while much of it is strikingly written, seems to miss the mark.
The tragedy is indeed brought into a current setting as Amelia (played by Egoyan’s wife Arsinee Khanjian) copes with her husband, known only as The General (Daniel Kash), being away stationed in Africa during the war on terror. When two young African children are brought into her home, sent by The General, Amelia soon discovers the truth of the horrific atrocities her husband has committed. Finding out that the eldest child, Laela (Abena Malika) is her husband’s lover, Amelia decides to take action by sending The General a ‘love drug’ of sorts in order to help renew his affection for her. What Amelia doesn’t know is that this ‘love drug’ is actually highly poisonous… a fact that pushes the play into full-on Tragedy mode.
What I found ultimately disconnecting about this modernization was many of the plot devices from the original Trachiniae that seemed to take little care in being presented in a more relevant manner. For instance, Amelia’s sudden insistence to her son Jamie that he must travel to Africa and find his father, while an example of an interesting artistic decision, felt forced and illogical in the eyes of a modern audience that thrives off of realism. I fear the problem may be that the play is too smart for its own good… either that, or it’s too ridiculous for even the sharpest eyes and minds to comprehend.
Of strong merit was the magnificently off-kilter, ambiguous plain white towering set designed by Debra Hanson (which is also used as a projection screen at numerous points of the performance) which has clear function as a home, but is certainly not a house. That, along with the warehouse lighting that illuminated the stage often, helped make this play a scenic marvel. Many performances were also worthy of mention, in particular a strong one by Jeff Lillico as son Jamie. Jamie’s riveting monologue confronting his mother about his experience in Africa alongside his father was an absolute highlight of the production. Had the rest of the play matched this moment in the show, it would have been an undisputed success. Sadly, besides the show’s stunning climax with an eerie use of blood effects and real-time projections, nothing else quite lived up to that single, powerful moment.
Sadly, of much lesser merit was the leading performance of Arsinee Khanjian as the general’s wife Amelia. While not without her moments, Khanjian’s self-indulgent portrayal of Amelia felt utterly detached from the rest of the cast and, on a larger scale, the rest of the production. Perhaps this was an acting choice, or a directorial decision by Egoyan, but it left the audience with little to care about (though not to say the character was intended to be sympathetic). I found myself tuning out frequently during Khanjian’s many monologues, and whether this is the fault of the writing or the performance remains unclear. Her fate is unexpected, albeit not an impactful surprise. As The General, Daniel Kash rings in a performance that is too short-lived and left me wanting more. He only appears for the final twenty or so minutes of the play and milks those twenty minutes for all their worth with his compelling presence.
This review may sound as though I believe this to be a bad show. This is not the case. While there are some glaring problems with the production, there is a lot to like here and the show has moments as strong as any theatre production you’ll see this year. The performances of the cast and the stunning visual aspects of the production are enough to keep it buoyant for its 90 minute running time. But is it worth the ticket price? That I can’t say, as I attended the performance for free. I don’t know if it would have been worth my money, but I do know that it was worth my time.
Cruel and Tender, a play by Martin Crimp directed by Atom Egoyan, runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, Ontario until Feburary 18th. More information here:
Very interesting view. It actually makes me think I'll get down to see this.
I'm loving more and more theatre that incorporates different media.
Here's a link to a project my office buddies, Inner Arts Matrix have been working on. It's just the trailer, and I'm not actually sure where they are going with this complex production. Most of it was created in Montreal, but the company is based in Kitchener.