A play that examines the violence in war and marriage will surely not leave one feeling buoyant. That said, playwright Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, a modern-day interpretation of Sophocles’s Trachiniae, is a vivid pronouncement about the devastating consequences of unleashed power.
Directed by Academy-Award-nominee Atom Egoyan, Canadian Stage’s Cruel and Tender, which opened at the Bluma Appel Theatre on Thursday, January 26, 2012, retells the story of the warrior, Heracles, who commits atrocities in battle in order for the sake of a woman, whom he then brings home as his lover. Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, must deal with the sharing of her husband with his mistress and collapse of her marriage and concocts a love potion to be administered to her husband, with disastrous results.
In Crimp’s updated version, Heracles is replaced by The General and the war zone becomes Africa, yet the focus of Cruel and Tender is primarily on the home front where Amelia, The General’s wife, reacts to the sudden arrival of his mistress, Laela.
Abena Malika as the allegorically-named Laela delivers a strong performance (including a wonderful singing voice) as the General’s mistress, efficiently conveying the girl’s initial fear and developing confidence in her new surroundings. Jeff Lillico as the General’s son, James, captures the teen’s everyday insouciance that develops into a seething rage at what he had witnessed in Africa. Though not appearing until the latter half of the play, Daniel Kash’s General is convincingly boorish in his incapacitated condition. Arsinée Khanjian’s Amelia lacks credibility in the first act due to a somewhat flat delivery, but gradually rallies the passion indicative of a distraught wife trying to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity. Thomas Hauff provides excitement while exuding a commanding authority as Richard.
Egoyan’s directing was generally well paced; however, at times, the dialogue lagged, which ran the risk of unravelling the whole premise.
Debra Hansen’s modern, all-white set provided a stark contrast to themes of war and violence and hinted at Amelia’s naiveté and insularity from reality. Hanson’s glorious costumes served many functions: providing economic contrasts between African and North American life; signifying Amelia’s transition from innocence to awareness; and highlighting Laela’s youth against Amelia’s middle age.
Michael Walton’s lighting technique deftly signalled temporal changes and was used to particularly great effect when the lights were turned up at blinding capacity to underscore Amelia’s confrontation with the truth. The soulful recordings of Billie Holiday, who came to represent the struggles of African Americans through her song, Strange Fruit, provide a thread throughout the play that links the murder of blacks in Africa with those in the U.S.
Cruel and Tender captures the the current spirit of global terror and revolt; however, the play fails to provide insight into these egregious acts and more importantly, the steps to healing. Perhaps it is this omission that leaves one in a rather confused state at curtain fall.