Cruel and Tender was just plain cruel
I wanted so much to love Canadian Stage’s Cruel and Tender because when a play is helmed by a director as acclaimed and talented as Atom Egoyan one expects great things, but so much of this show went terribly wrong.
To begin with, I was not a fan of the writing by British playwright Martin Crimp which is an updated version of Sophocles’ Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis). The script takes a bleak look at a modern military General fighting a bloody war inAfrica as his devoted, spoiled wife Amelia awaits his return. When the General’s African lover Laela shows up with a young boy at Amelia’s house, her world quickly begins to unravel.
Egoyan throws in all sorts of interesting elements into the storytelling including strange karaoke-esqe singing which I quite enjoyed but never figured out how it connected with the story being told.
There was apparently some meaning behind a grate in the kitchen floor as it was picked up several times and then later focused on by a hand-held camera. The problem was that I have never seen a grate in a residential home so I was confused as to why it was there to begin with. The significance of this and some other props went completely over my head.
The script was in no way assisted by the acting. Several of the central characters were in their own world on stage. The actors did not seem to be listening to each other, letting information land or allowing other characters to affect them. This may very well have been an intentional choice but it left me as an audience member feeling alienated.
This is the first time I have seen Arsinée Khanjian on stage. Her performance seemed pushed with emotions demonstrated, rather than inhabited. Her delivery did not contain the levels that the role of the wife Amelia requires. A large majority of the play surrounds her character so if all the notes played are the same, it gets very repetitive very fast. In my opinion, the characterization would have been much more effective had it been far more contained with the madness that eventually consumes her, slowly building throughout the piece. Khanjian started out in such a heightened emotional state that there was simply nowhere for her to go.
The General, played by Daniel Kash, exploded all over the stage like a semi-automatic weapon, and some of what he did worked. He certainly was a terrifying figure but his physical choices were over the top. The General is supposed to return from war beaten down and crippled, yet Kash only portrays this with an awkward limp and a shaky hand which simply isn’t believable.
There is some nice work by the supporting characters. Abena Malika has a wonderful stage presence and radiates in the part of Laela. Jeff Lillico has some powerful moments in the latter half of the show as the son James. Sarah Wilson and Cara Ricketts each fully mined the potential of their characters. Brenda Robins as the housekeeper had a nice grounded vibe but could have gone further with comedic choices.
Debra Hanson creates a stark white, cavernous multi-level set in which interesting projections by Cameron Davis illustrate scenes of war. There are some very strong visuals in the show which is no surprise with Egoyan’s work as a filmmaker. I especially liked the use of the camera showing close-ups of the General’s tortured face projected on the wall.
I like so much of what Canadian Stage has been doing recently, but for me Cruel and Tender simply did not make a lot of sense. I want to leave the theatre understanding what the story was, or the message, or feeling something, and after this performance, I was just left confused.